Adam Phillips

Adam Phillips’s The Cure for Psychoanalysis and On Getting Better have just been published.

On Giving Up

Adam Phillips, 6 January 2022

Our history of giving up – that is to say, our attitude towards it, our obsession with it, our disavowal of its significance – may be a clue to something we should really call our histories and not our selves. It is a clue to the beliefs, the sentences, around which we have organised ourselves. If giving up tends to be the catastrophe to be averted, what do we imagine giving up is actually like?

On Being Left Out: On FOMO

Adam Phillips, 20 May 2021

Being left out begins as tragedy, and tragedy, Freud suggests, is integral to development. So the developmental question – the moral question – is this: is there another and better solution to feeling left out than revenge? If we don’t retaliate, against others and against ourselves, what else can we do? 

Unforgiven: ‘Down Girl’

Adam Phillips, 7 March 2019

Kate Manne knows that a book about misogyny is going to be preaching to the converted, when the converted don’t necessarily know what or how they think; or indeed what to do with their doubts, not least their doubts about the ideology of virtue, about being on the side of the angels. Down Girl rightly insists that misogyny is so all-pervading and so alluring that we are more likely to take it for granted than we are to acknowledge it properly, or want to change it for something better. ‘What could possibly change any of this?’ Manne asks in the conclusion to her book, and it sounds like a cry from the heart.

Early on​ in Emmanuel Carrère’s remarkable novel The Kingdom (2014), about the vagaries of Christian conversion, the narrator tells us that his unhappy mother always knew of the ‘inner kingdom’ – ‘the only one that’s really worth aspiring to: the treasure for which the Gospel tells us to renounce all riches’ – but that she had been...

Translating​ Proust’s novel back into his life, and then the life back into the novel, has been an abiding temptation both for those who know it well and for those who don’t. In part this is an effect of the novel, which is itself obsessed by what people want to know about one another, and why. As ‘the world of people we associate with bears so little resemblance to the...

I fret and fret: Edward Thomas

Adam Phillips, 5 November 2015

Edward Thomas​ believed that up to about the age of four what he called ‘a sweet darkness’ enfolded him ‘with a faint blessing’. It was, though, a darkness and the blessing was faint. ‘From an early age’, Jean Moorcroft Wilson writes, Thomas ‘felt cursed by a self-consciousness he believed the chief cause of his later problems and depression’....

Against Self-Criticism

Adam Phillips, 5 March 2015

Lacan said that there was surely something ironic about Christ’s injunction to love thy neighbour as thyself – because actually, of course, people hate themselves. Or you could say that, given the way people treat one another, perhaps they had always loved their neighbours in the way they loved themselves: that is, with a good deal of cruelty and disregard. ‘After all,’ Lacan writes, ‘the people who followed Christ were not so brilliant.’

To Be or Knot to Be

Adam Phillips, 10 October 2013

In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche gives what Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster call a ‘fascinating short interpretation’ of Hamlet, from which they take their title. They don’t think much of the book up to that point: it’s when he gets to Hamlet, they argue, that Nietzsche wakes up. This isn’t a view everyone would share, but it’s of a piece with the...

No one recovers from the sadomasochism of their childhood. We may not want to think of the relations between parents and children as power relations: indeed it may sound like a perversion of parenting to do so. And we don’t want to think of parents and children being in any way sexually gratified by their status in relation to each other. But, to put it as cutely as possible, feeling...

No one can write about religion now without having in mind the new mockery that accompanies the new atheism. The new atheism’s ‘smug emissaries’ – as the blurb of Francis Spufford’s engaging new book calls them, meaning above all Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins – believe in spite of all evidence that eventually the religious will see sense. And yet...

Shaky Ground: Autism and Madness

Adam Phillips, 23 February 2012

Descriptions of mental illness depend on what a society regards as a desirable form of exchange. Behaviour is seen as a symptom (or a crime) rather than a foible or a talent when things deemed to be essential – sex, words, money – are being exchanged in a particularly disturbing way, or not being exchanged at all. Sex with children is unequivocally wrong, and possibly an illness,...

Judas’ Gift: In Praise of Betrayal

Adam Phillips, 5 January 2012

In 1965-66 the erstwhile folk singer Bob Dylan released a great trilogy of albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and set off on a world tour that would change popular music. At a now famous concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, Dylan was playing his new electric and electrifying music when a disaffected folkie in the audience shouted...

Am I a spaceman? Wilhelm Reich

Adam Phillips, 20 October 2011

In a Freud Anniversary Lecture given in New York in 1968, Anna Freud looked back with nostalgia on the early days of psychoanalysis. ‘When we scrutinise the personalities who, by self-selection, became the first generation of psychoanalysts,’ she said,

we are left in no doubt about their characteristics. They were the unconventional ones, the doubters, those who were dissatisfied...

Stag at Bay: Byron in Geneva

Adam Phillips, 25 August 2011

Byron looked at his own tumultuous life with an Enlightenment gaze: empirical, sceptical, agnostic, hedonistic. He was an ironic rationalist, who, like all rationalists, had an irrational personal history. He was interested in what, if anything, the two things – the tumultuous life and the Enlightenment gaze – might say about each other, but he never assumed that one could be used...

‘This is a period without glamour,’ Isherwood writes in a diary entry for 18 May 1962, apropos his lover Don Bachardy’s birthday. ‘He blames me because his birthday isn’t marvellous, and I would blame him under the same circumstances.’ Isherwood feared these times without glamour – if they were without glamour – because he was about to be in his...

Memories of Frank Kermode

Stefan Collini, Karl Miller, Adam Phillips, Jacqueline Rose, James Wood, Michael Wood and Wynne Godley, 23 September 2010

Stefan Collini writes: ‘Yes, I’d like that very much. That really would be something to look forward to.’ Frank was already weakened and wasted by throat cancer, but my suggestion that we go to watch some cricket at Fenner’s did seem genuinely to appeal to him. There wasn’t much to look forward to by this point. On the appointed day the weather was kind, and...

Misgivings: Christopher Ricks

Adam Phillips, 22 July 2010

In his first book, Milton’s Grand Style, Christopher Ricks showed us that Milton wanted his readers to be attentive to the fact that when our ‘first parents’ fell, their language fell with them. Paradise Lost could only have been written in the language we were left with after the catastrophe, but is partly about the language we started with, and what happened to it. Our...

Self-Amused: Isaiah Berlin

Adam Phillips, 23 July 2009

Isaiah Berlin was returning from Paris in 1952 when the aeroplane – ‘it was an Air France: Air Chance is a better name’ – ‘caught fire and scenes of extraordinary panic occurred’. Berlin mentions this, jokily and in passing, in several letters, but Alice James, the wife of William James’s son Billy, gets the full story of the disaster that...

In Praise of Difficult Children

Adam Phillips, 12 February 2009

When you play truant you have a better time. But how do you know what a better time is, or how do you learn what a better time is? You become aware, in adolescence and in a new way, that there are many kinds of good time to be had, and that they are often in conflict with each other. When you betray yourself, when you let yourself down, you have misrecognised what your idea of a good time is;...

‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent’: it’s a notion children pick up quite quickly. It is also, of course, a remark about the limits of what we can use language to do, but Wittgenstein is unusual as a philosopher because he so often writes about the difficulties a child has growing up in a family. His wish to clarify the world as he finds it, his stress on ‘perspicuous representations’ and ‘just that understanding which consists in “seeing connections”’, turns the figure of the philosopher into the kind of child who wants to understand what is going on in his family, as opposed to the child who takes refuge from his family in a fantasy life. For Wittgenstein, this is the difference between working out what people are using words to do in a more or less shared family life and being a metaphysician living in a world (or a system) of your own making.

The scientific study of sexuality – unsurprisingly, perhaps, a flourishing academic field – aims to help us sort out what we might want from what we can have. Given how widespread sexual curiosity tends to be, it’s always interesting to see what science can get up to when it researches sex; what calling this particular area of research ‘scientific’ adds to, or...

Hostility tends to make people sound more powerful than they really are. Eliot against the Romantics, Leavis against Milton, Empson against Christianity, Ricks against Theory. By the 1990s, when literary criticism had become even more marginal than it was in its supposed heyday, critics were known mostly for the ferocity of their prejudices. Geoffrey Hartman, though, has never been a critic...

After Strachey: Translating Freud

Adam Phillips, 4 October 2007

It’s never, in any way whatever, by another person’s excesses that one turns out, in appearance at least, to be overwhelmed. It’s always because their excesses happen to coincide with your own.

The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XVII:The Other Side of Psychoanalysis

Now that the Freud wars are over it seems a good time for a new translation. This is certainly a good time...

No Joke: Meanings of Impotence

Adam Phillips, 5 July 2007

Men​ are so exercised by the thought of impotence that they will believe virtually anything. During the 1920s and 1930s various medicines and contraptions were patented that promised to fill ‘weak and nervous men’ with ‘rampant vigour’. Though most of these inventions were denounced by the medical profession, their popularity was proof, if proof were needed, that the...

‘Tell me who you desire and I will tell you your history’ has become the shibboleth of post-Freudian autobiography, in which the lust for personal history has overridden the other, older kind of lust. Since everyone has a history it is now assumed that everyone has an autobiography in them. In this new solipsism we don’t want other people, we want to ‘recover’,...

Someone Else: Paul Muldoon

Adam Phillips, 4 January 2007

Paul Muldoon excluded himself from Contemporary Irish Poetry, his 1986 Faber anthology, but he included a poem by Seamus Heaney that was dedicated to him. We don’t of course know why the poem was dedicated to him, or indeed whether it is in any sense about him. It is a suggestive poem about what the living can get from the dead:

WidgeonFor Paul Muldoon

It had been badly shot. While...

Replying in 1934 to a Japanese poet who had asked for advice about writing ‘modern’ poetry, William Empson recommended ‘verse with a variety of sorts of feeling in it . . . it might be a good thing to try to show the clash of different philosophies, and social comedy, and quote lines of poetry by people quite different from you that you have thought especially good.’ These were the things which Empson consistently admired in poetry, and which he wrote about with such eloquence and intemperance in what had begun to seem even to him a long war against the doctrinaire in literature. Against what he took to be the prevailing modern orthodoxy of Symbolist poetry – ‘the main rule is that a poet must never say what he wants to say directly . . . he must invent a way of hinting at it by metaphors, which are then called images’ – he promoted what he called ‘argufying’ in poetry, ‘the kind of arguing we do in ordinary life, usually to get our own way’. He didn’t want us to think of poetry as a privileged use of words exempt from ordinary considerations. He wanted readers to ask questions like: what is the poet trying to persuade us – and himself – of? What is he intending to say, and how, if at all, has he succeeded? What are ‘the ideas his mind was working upon’? What is the story being told? Literature, unlike propaganda, was writing in which people were in at least two minds about what mattered to them, but still meant what they said.

This is a book about the reasons we give and the reason we give them; a book about our behaviour rather than the mysteries of human existence or technology or the universe. For Charles Tilly, people give reasons not ‘because of some universal craving for truth or coherence’ but because they want to confirm, negotiate or repair their relationships. The whole business of giving...

Thwarted Closeness: Diane Arbus

Adam Phillips, 26 January 2006

If it is too often said about Diane Arbus that she photographs freaks, it does at least suggest that we know what normal people are like, what people look like when they are not odd. It is reassuring to be reminded that we know a freak when we see one. There are, of course, points of view, angles from which we can all look like freaks to ourselves; and Arbus is unusually eloquent about this...

Remember me: Bret Easton Ellis

Adam Phillips, 1 December 2005

Bret Easton Ellis has always been interested in the ways in which people don’t pay attention, and in the cost of attention when it is paid. In the comédie humaine he has been writing since 1985, when his first novel, Less than Zero, was published, his characters, who recur throughout the books, are as torpid and enervated as Balzac’s are driven and determined. Balzac’s heroes and heroines – and indeed his minor characters – always want to make their presence felt; hope makes them demonic. Ellis’s characters, by contrast, are always trying to absent themselves from their own and other people’s lives. They are bizarre and clever and deadpan witty, but these are the ways they have of curing themselves of hope, of nipping it in the bud. American Psycho (1991), in many ways Ellis’s subtlest novel, begins with the words ‘Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here,’ ‘scrawled in blood-red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank’.

What You Really Want: Edmund White

Adam Phillips, 3 November 2005

It is conventional for people now to have lives rather than a life, but it is not always clear whose lives they are. They can, of course, be claimed – you can call them, as Edmund White does in this autobiography, ‘my lives’ – but there are always counter-claims. What seemed most intimately one’s own can turn out to have been someone else’s all along. Being possessive doesn’t make one self-possessed, and White makes great play in this fascinating and archly mischievous book with ideas of ownership, sexual and otherwise. By calling his first chapter ‘My Shrinks’, and the following chapters ‘My Father’, ‘My Mother’, ‘My Hustlers’, ‘My Women’, ‘My Europe’, ‘My Master’, ‘My Blonds’, ‘My Genet’, ‘My Friends’, he keeps reminding us that his story about himself is always a story about other people. And that most of these other people, beginning, naturally, with his parents (and with his shrinks), were so self-absorbed that the young Edmund could never really make them his. He was involved but never included; he was always part of someone else’s project and grew up – turning a predicament into a wish – craving the desire of others. He ‘wanted to be indispensable’, and his parents’ high-maintenance egotism left him with a virtual passion for what he calls passivity. ‘His words,’ he says of one of his hustlers, ‘gave me an instant erection – the bliss of total passivity edged with the fear of total passivity.’ It would not be true to say that White’s autobiography is mostly about other people; but what fascinates him about other people is the nature of their self-regard, the ways in which they are caught up in who they want to be.

‘Just as the pearl is the oyster’s affliction,’ Flaubert wrote in a letter in 1852, ‘so style is perhaps the discharge from a deeper wound.’ It is an arresting image, not because it was news then that the artist was in some way a wounded soul – someone whose suffering was the source and inspiration of his art – but because we would expect the wound to...

Newfangled Inner Worlds: Malingering

Adam Phillips, 3 March 2005

Malingering, the OED tells us, is something originally done by the armed forces: ‘To pretend illness, or to produce or protract illness, in order to escape duty; said esp. of soldiers and sail-ors.’ To avoid conscription (the first usage is recorded in 1820), or to escape the horrors of what the military authorities have referred to since at least the 17th century as...

The first English translation of a novel by Sándor Márai, Embers, came out in 2001. It had been published in Hungary in 1942, but next to nothing was known in the West about its author: the publisher’s blurb said that he had been born in Kassa in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1900 and was one of the leading ‘literary’ novelists of the 1930s in Hungary; and that,...

Kingsley Amis called Dylan Thomas’s life, the life told by Thomas’s first thorough biographer Paul Ferris, ‘a hilarious, shocking, sad story’. Thomas was very important to the Amis-Larkin club partly because he seemed determined not to be seen to be taking anything, including himself, too seriously. In 1941, Larkin refers to Thomas coming to the English Club at Oxford:...

Hauteur: ‘Paranoid Modernism’

Adam Phillips, 22 May 2003

What is now called trauma theory informs contemporary biography as much as it does the academic practice of literary history. Belief in trauma as a kind of agency, as a cultural force – in events as the real heroes and heroines in life stories – turns up historically when people are beginning to lose faith in God and character and cause and effect. Despite the fact that the...

Bored with Sex? Nasty Turns

Adam Phillips, 6 March 2003

“The big secret about sex isn’t quite that most people don’t like it, it’s that most people don’t like it because they are with people they aren’t really excited by or with people they are too excited by (which is why most relationships end in either boredom or pathological jealousy).”

Plumage and Empire: This is an Ex-Parrot

Adam Phillips, 31 October 2002

Asking what animals are like if and when they are not like us is also a way of asking what we are like if we are not as we describe ourselves.

One walks about the street with one’s desires, and one’s refinement rises up like a wall whenever opportunity approaches.

T.S. Eliot to Conrad Aiken, 31 December 1914

Writing a London Letter for the Dial in September 1922, T.S. Eliot suggested that there were ‘at present . . . three main types of English novel’. There was the ‘old narrative...

In Primo Levi’s memoir of Auschwitz If this is a man – written, he says, not ‘to formulate new accusations … rather, to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind’ – there is an account that is a kind of accusation of a man Levi calls Henri. There are several character sketches of his fellow inmates, but the two pages on...

In the introduction to the first volume of his biography of Russell, Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, Ray Monk was clear, as his title indicated, about the story he had to tell, though also daunted by the amount of material he had to work with. The bibliography of Russell’s work lists more than three thousand publications, and this doesn’t include the letters he wrote...

Knitting: Charm

Adam Phillips, 16 November 2000

Isherwood was a novelist with the inclinations of an autobiographer. There are always characters in his novels who love what he calls ‘playacting’, who charm and flirt and reinvent themselves whenever necessary, and as much as possible. They are such compelling and irreverent storytellers that they help us forget about truth-telling; they make everyone, including themselves, feel...

First of all we have to imagine a world in which people suffer and have no hope that anything or anyone can make a difference. Then we have to imagine what it would be like to live in a world of people who have no wish to help each other or to feel better. If we don’t do this, the history of medicine, and of its country cousin psychiatry, not to mention the history of religion, will hardly seem different from a history of quacks and con-artists ingeniously exploiting the hopelessly vulnerable. The question has always been: what, if anything, can be done? Only when we acknowledge the very real drawbacks of living in a world in which everyone’s unhappiness renders everyone else clueless, can we review our contemporary options and their histories with some sense of relief. We may have very real doubts now about, say, aromatherapy, or ECT, or cognitive psychology – or even about people having personal trainers – but we quite literally have to do something when we begin to feel in some way troubled. It is fortunate that pain has made us so inventive.’

On the Run: John Lanchester

Adam Phillips, 2 March 2000

The name is ordinary, so the book announces itself as a book about no one special; though, of course, when men without qualities become the subjects of novels a certain gravity (if not grace) is conferred on them. But even though Mr Phillips is really a book about its title – and about what names entitle people to – the title has to be read in the light of the book’s epigraph. Taken from Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots, it plays off, as epigraphs must, the title of the novel against the title that is the source of the quotation: ‘Mr Phillips and the Need for Roots’. Tarquin Winot, the now infamous narrator of Lanchester’s previous novel, The Debt to Pleasure, would have enjoyed the portentous solemnity of the epigraph itself: ‘A man left alone in the universe would have no rights whatsoever, but he would have obligations.’ Victor Phillips, the eponymous hero of Lanchester’s new novel, doesn’t think of himself as a man of big themes, and so wouldn’t be drawn either to reading about them, or indeed to mocking them. Whether or not Mr Phillips would have been Simone Weil’s cup of tea – the novel that is, the character certainly wouldn’t have been – her line is there as a guide-line, ushering you into the novel once you’ve got past the title. And Mr Phillips is not demanding as titles go; and as novels go it is exceptionally funny and often astoundingly intelligent – but it is quizzical.’‘

You call that a breakfast?

Adam Phillips, 17 February 2000

As there’s nothing you can do to a joke to make it funny, except tell it well, the telling of jokes can be a testing time for everyone involved. And once they’ve been told we rarely have conversations about whether or not they have worked. Good art makes us think and talk and write; good jokes just amuse us. Either we get them or we don’t; and when jokes are interpreted they begin to sound like bad jokes. In fact, when it comes to jokes, explanation and understanding are at odds with each other. If you get the joke you can explain it, but explaining a joke rarely makes anyone happy (you couldn’t have a book called ‘The Best Jokes Explained’). So the idea of someone being serious about jokes – wanting something from jokes besides what is patently on offer – is not, in the ordinary way of things, very enticing.’‘

Roaring Boy: Hart Crane

Adam Phillips, 30 September 1999

In so far as there was a shared response to Hart Crane’s poetry after his suicide in 1932, it took the form of invidious comparisons. ‘Crane had the sensibility typical of Baudelaire,’ RP. Blackmur wrote in 1935, ‘and so misunderstood himself that he attempted to write The Bridge as if he had the sensibility typical of Whitman.’ Dylan Thomas’s poems, Randall Jarrell wrote in 1940, ‘often mean much less than Crane’s – but when you consider Crane’s meanings this is not altogether a disadvantage’. And whether he was thought to be confused and self-deceiving, or vacuous, or even crazy, Crane was such a troubling figure, both before and after his early death, that people were inclined to describe his poetry in a way that cast aspersions on his character; as though such unapproachable poems could only be approached biographically. Comparing Crane’s ‘epics’ with Zukofsky’s, Hugh Kenner wrote, in his once canonical The Pound Era: ‘The Bridge yields only to nutcrackers, “A” to reading.’ There was certainly something that Crane’s poems wouldn’t let you do to them.’‘

Commanded to Mourn: mourning

Adam Phillips, 18 February 1999

Other people’s mourning – like other people’s sexuality and other people’s religions – is something one has to have a special reason to be interested in. So to write a book, as Leon Wieseltier has done, about the mourning of his father is asking a lot (and to write a book of 585 pages is asking even more). One of the ironies of the so-called mourning process is that it tends to make people even more self-absorbed than they usually are; in need of accomplices, but baffled about what they want from them. In actuality what the mourner wants from other people is so obscure, so confounded that religions are usually still needed to formulate it. Even secular therapies – which are all, one way or another, forms of bereavement counselling – are keen to offer us guidelines about how to do it, and how to know if it isn’t going well. Because mourning can make fundamentalists of us all; because grief (like sexuality) can seem like a cult that could kidnap us, there is always a great deal of social pressure on the grief-stricken to conform, to observe the protocols, to believe in the process (and that it is a process). And so recover sooner rather than later. But what would recovery be, what would have been recovered?’

Reasons for Living: On Being Understood

Adam Phillips, 12 November 1998

If we picture the mind as an orifice then we cannot help but wonder what it should be open to and what it should be open for. And how it, or rather we, make such vital decisions. An open mind is not an open door: ‘open-mindedness’ merely describes what is, for some people, a preferred way of discriminating. This openness, once looked into, usually makes us seem rather more like connoisseurs than we might wish: more picky than free. After all, at its most minimal, the open-minded have to know what they must keep out of their minds to keep them open (sexual desire, religion and ideology are the traditional candidates). Religions and therapies help people to close out certain thoughts so they can be open to better ones. An open mind, as Northrop Frye remarked, has to be open at both ends. So when we think of ourselves as open-minded we think of ourselves as open to the right kinds of thing. We have doors in order to be able to close them. Our attention is not so much selective as exclusive.‘

Long Runs: A.E. Housman

Adam Phillips, 18 June 1998

‘Passion and scholarship may enhance each other’s effects,’ E.M. Forster noted in his Commonplace Book with A.E. Housman in mind. Forster was always keen to reduce the incompatibles in life: Housman was less persuaded by such redemptive harmonies. He preferred the losing paradoxes to the winning ones: ‘ “Whoever shall save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life shall find it.” That is the most important truth that has ever been uttered,’ he said in his Leslie Stephen Lecture of 1933, published as The Name and Nature of Poetry. His poetry is always fascinated by what is irresolvable – ‘Keep we must, if keep we can/These foreign laws of God and man’ – and his scholarly prose concerned, above all, with such textual resolutions as are possible in a world of inevitably corrupt classical texts. Having lost his faith at 13 – though never his interest in the Bible, as Archie Burnett’s commentary on the poems in this wonderful edition makes very clear – he discovered a vocation for accuracy.’‘

Cloud Cover

Adam Phillips, 16 October 1997

For three words once, in 1987, Martin Amis sounded like D.H. Lawrence. ‘Art celebrates life,’ he wrote in his keenly anti-nuclear Introduction to Einstein’s Monsters, and then he went back to being himself: ‘and not the other thing, not the opposite of life.’ Before nuclear weapons had dawned on him – ‘I say I “became” interested, but really I was interested all along’ – it was not always clear what life Amis’s writing was on the side of. It had always seemed, reading the novels (though not, interestingly, his journalism), as if he wanted to find things to celebrate, but was hard-pressed to do so. Or that the reader had to work out what might matter to him, infer it from his exhilarated ridicule. The acute sense of people’s vulnerability in his writing made him sound like someone embarrassed by his own seriousness rather than a natural satirist. He seemed unduly self-conscious about being committed to anything other than himself as a writer, and the studied recklessness of his remarkable style. There are novelists who want to interest the reader in their characters, and novelists who want to interest us in themselves. In the second case the style is always tantalisingly suggestive of the life the writer must be living, or the unusual person he is. One of the many remarkable things about Amis is that he’s never been quite sure which kind of writer he wants to be; and at his best – in Success, in Money, in Time’s Arrow – he has been able to be both. The moralist and the celebrity are awkward bedfellows; they have to be as artful as Amis can be to pull it off.’

Getting Ready to Exist

Adam Phillips, 17 July 1997

‘True originality,’ Cocteau Pessoa’s contemporary, wrote, ‘consists in trying to behave like everybody else without succeeding.’ It was once characteristically modern to idealise originality, and to conceive of it as a form of failure. The fittest as those who didn’t fit. If there is nothing more compliant now than the wish to be original – to find one’s own voice etc – it is also assumed that originality and success can, and should, go together. But for the European Modernist writers of Pessoa’s generation – he was born in Lisbon in 1888 and died there in 1935 – the question was still: what has been lost when words like ‘success’ or ‘originality’ become ultimate values, when lives and writing are judged by these criteria? The Romantic concept of genius, after all – the apotheosis of originality – was itself a kind of elegy for a lost community. All the solitary, disillusioned moderns – Baudelaire, Kafka, Eliot, Beckett – are preoccupied by their sociability: its impossibility, its triviality, its compromises, its shame. For these writers ambition without irony flies in the face of the evidence; a successful life was a contradiction in terms, because the Modernist revelation was that lives don’t work. A certain revulsion was integral to their vision.’

You have to be educated to be educated

Adam Phillips, 3 April 1997

For the great majority of people, believing in the truths of science is unavoidably an act of faith. Most of us neither witness the successful experiments nor would be able to understand them if we did. So we put an extraordinary amount of trust in things we know virtually nothing about (very few people interrogate their anaesthetists). The reason there are ‘popular science’ books is that work has to be done to make science popular. We assume, rightly or wrongly, that scientists are not intent on mystifying what they do: it just is difficult to understand without the requisite education and talent. And yet it was part of the original intent of the so-called scientific revolution of the 17th century that legitimate knowledge should be neither a mystery (the province of occult magicians) nor a piety (based on the authority of the Ancients, and acquired by reading their books). Shareable methods of enquiry would allow at least some people to find out things for themselves. It was, William Harvey wrote, ‘base’ to ‘receive instructions from others’ comments without examination of the objects themselves, especially as the book of Nature lies so open and is so easy of consultation’. ‘Easy’, though, is the word we use to describe things we have learned how to do. What people find easy is, among other things, an indicator of social class.

Doing Heads

Adam Phillips, 31 October 1996

In their Introduction to the Picador Book of the New Gothic Patrick McGrath and Bradford Morrow proposed a familiar kind of progress myth to help us find our way around the New Gothic; the old, or rather, original Gothic being by definition a genre in which the protagonists lost their way in horror or deranged bewilderment. ‘Gothic fiction,’ they wrote,

Getting Even

Adam Phillips, 19 September 1996

We wouldn’t think of anything as a tragedy if we did not have a deeply ingrained sense of order already there to be affronted. Tragedy in life, and as art, exposes by violation our mostly unconscious assumptions about how the world should be; and how often we take for granted that it is as it should be – a world in which, say, no one ever takes revenge, or dies. ‘If we were all wicked,’ A.D. Nuttall writes, ‘there would, perhaps, be no problem.’ But the ‘perhaps’, as he knows, points to the problem. There is – the title of his shrewd and learned book acknowledges it – an unnerving, and not quite so easily explained, disparity between our profound fascination with tragic art and absolute horror of real tragedy. It is a difference calculated to expose our more unsettling assumptions about the value of art, and about what we might be doing when we are enjoying something that appals us.’

On Interest

Adam Phillips, 20 June 1996

I can swim like the others only I have a better memory than the others. I have not forgotten my former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it my ability to swim is of no avail and I cannot swim after all.

Women: what are they for?

Adam Phillips, 4 January 1996

For anyone interested in the history of psychoanalysis, or indeed, in how people start having new kinds of conversation, The Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society are an inexhaustible source of amusement and instruction. From 1906 to 1915, in his role as official secretary to the Society, Freud’s keen and earnest young student, Otto Rank, recorded the first formal psychoanalytic discussions by the first men who thought of themselves as psychoanalysts. A surprisingly wide range of topics is covered in the three hefty volumes published in America in the early Sixties: from, as perhaps one might expect, masturbation and female assassins – ‘Federn comments that to slips of the tongue and the hand, we must now add slips of shooting’ – to works of philosophy, psychology and literature. There are early moments of what would become an influential new genre, psychoanalytic seriousness – ‘According to Bölsche, clothes are the cause of nudity’ – and glimpses of esoteric romance: ‘the genitalia are said to be the first gods, and religious feeling is derived from the ecstasies of intercourse.’ It is clear, despite the almost palpable presence of Freud in these pages – ‘our great father in Vienna’, as Wittels calls him in his memoirs, ‘the greatest psychological genius of all time’ – that a lot of these people were relishing the demand that they speak their minds, and on such diverse topics. A profession that encouraged people to say whatever occurred to them is bound to be interesting to observe when it wants to keep to the point.’


Adam Phillips, 24 August 1995

In a contemporary review of The Renaissance in the Pall Mall Gazette, the critic Sidney Colvin wrote that ‘the book is not one for any beginner to turn to in search of “information”.’ ‘Information’ was in inverted commas not because there were no facts or respectable opinions in the book, but because Pater did not seem to believe in information, as it was customarily understood in criticism of the arts. As most reviewers seemed to agree, he wasn’t doing something new, he was doing something badly. ‘In the matter of historical fact,’ Denis Donoghue writes, joining in, as it were, ‘Pater also took liberties, so many that it is a pity he did not derive more satisfaction from them.’ But Pater was satisfied not by getting it wrong, but by not having to get it right. It was his style to affirm invention over accuracy and, indeed, satisfaction over argument.


Adam Phillips, 9 March 1995

Most psychoanalytic literature is a contemporary version of the etiquette book; improving our internal manners, advising us on our best sexual behaviour (usually called maturity, or mental health or a decentred self). It is indeed, dismaying how quickly psychoanalysis has become the science of the sensible passions; as though its aim was to make people more intelligible to themselves rather than to realise how strange they are. When psychoanalysis makes too much sense, or makes sense of too much, it turns into exactly the symptom it is trying to cure: defensive knowingness. But there is nothing like sexuality for making a mockery of our self-knowledge. In our erotic lives, at least, our preferences do not always accord with our standards. We are excited by the oddest things, and sometimes people.

The Experts

Adam Phillips, 22 December 1994

After all, one can only say something if one has learned to talk.


Adam Phillips, 6 October 1994

There has always been a resistance, at least among psychoanalysts themselves, to thinking of their work as mind-reading or fortune-telling. Despite the fact that most ordinary conversation is exactly this, or perhaps because it is, psychoanalysts have wanted to describe what they do as different, as rational even: dealing with the irrational but not dealing in it (‘On waking,’ Ferenczi writes mockingly to Freud, ‘one wants on no account to have thought something quite nonsensical or illogical’). It was important to Freud that psychoanalysis should not become a cult of the irrational. The unconscious may be disreputable, but the psychoanalyst must not be. And yet Freud’s description of the unconscious was a threat to, and a parody of, the more respectable versions of professional competence. If a psychoanalyst knows what’s in the unconscious, or knows how it works, she has a specific expertise. But if the unconscious is what cannot be anticipated, can there then be experts of the unknown? ‘The weather,’ as Freud puts it here, ‘of course never comes from the quarter one has been carefully observing.’

The Shock of the Old

Adam Phillips, 10 February 1994

For the patient in psychoanalysis the most disabling insights are the ones he cannot forget; and for the psychoanalyst, by the same token, the most misleading theories are the ones he cannot do without. Mental addictions, that is to say, are supposed by psychoanalysis to be the problem not the solution. People come for psychoanalysis when there is something they cannot forget, something they cannot stop telling themselves about their lives. And these dismaying repetitions – this unconscious limiting or coercion of the repertoire of lives and life-stories – create the illusion of time having stopped. In our repetitions we seem to be staying away from the future, keeping it at bay. What are called symptoms are these (failed) attempts at closure, at calling a halt to something. Like provisional deaths, they are spurious forms of mastery.

The Unimportance of Being Ernest

Adam Phillips, 5 August 1993

The first chapter of Ernest Jones’s misleadingly entitled autobiography, Free Associations, ends with a bemusing paragraph about the Welsh ‘servant who acted also as a nurse’ during Jones’s early childhood: ‘One of my memories of this nurse was that she taught me two words to designate the male organ, one for it in a flaccid state, the other in an erect. It was an opulence of vocabulary I have not encountered since.’ As this superbly-edited correspondence shows, this childhood memory was a kind of symbolic omen, an uncanny foreshadowing of Jones’s later preoccupations. The translation of psychoanalysis – both trying to get it across and turning it into English – was to be Jones’s mission.’

I feel guilty

Adam Phillips, 11 March 1993

When Freud insisted that psychoanalysis had nothing to do with ethical enquiry, was not in the business of making moral worlds or of providing a new Weltanschauung, he was trying to dissociate himself from the Judaism of his forefathers, and trying to dissociate psychoanalysis from any connection with religion (or mysticism). If psychoanalysis was seen to be compatible with traditional religious belief it would lose both its scientific credibility and its apparent originality. But one is only absolutely original, of course, until one is found out.

Having it both Ways

Adam Phillips, 5 November 1992

Describing the two sexes as opposite or complementary, rather than useful to each other for certain things but not for others, promotes the misleading idea that we are all in search of completion. Bewitched by the notion of being complete, we become obsessed by notions of sameness and difference, by thoughts of what to include and what to reject in order to keep ourselves whole. But maintaining this icon of ourselves confronts us with a paradoxical question: if we have an identity what are we identical to? It is as though we need to know where we are by never being anywhere else. And one fundamental means of orientation, of self-recognition, is the difference between the sexes, despite the fact that in practice they keep leaking into each other. Once you stop pointing to body parts and start talking, the apparent differences between men and women begin to dissipate. So if we aren’t different from the opposite sex, what are we?

What if Freud didn’t care?

Adam Phillips, 14 May 1992

Auden once suggested that a literary critic should declare his ‘dream of Eden’ because ‘honesty demands that he describes it to his readers, so that they may be in a position to judge his judgments.’ Even though psychoanalysis ironises dreams of Eden – in psychoanalytic theory paradise is only for the losers – it would be useful for psychoanalysts to say something about these things, about the kind of world they would prefer to live in, and why they think psychoanalysis is a good way of both spending one’s time and contributing to this Eden. It will, after all, matter a great deal to their patients what stories they tend to tell themselves and their colleagues about, say, promiscuity, or socialism, or ambition. And, of course, about psychoanalysis and the significance of its history.’

How to be your father’s mother

Adam Phillips, 12 September 1991

A crucial incident in Patrimony comes when Roth’s aged and ill father Herman ‘beshats himself’, as he puts it:

Freud’s Idols

Adam Phillips, 27 September 1990

This complaint at the uniformity of the world is really a complaint at not having been mixed profoundly enough with the diversity of the world.

What is there to lose?

Adam Phillips, 24 May 1990

The idea that literature, or any other discipline like boxing or song-writing, could modify psychoanalytic theory – that it could be a two-way street – has always been problematic for psychoanalysts. There is, of course, no reason to think a psychoanalyst’s interpretation of a boxing match would necessarily be more revealing than a boxer’s account of a psychoanalytic session. But psychoanalysts have worked on the rather misleading principle that psychoanalysis is only useful or interesting if it is in some sense right, rather than believing that it is another good way of speaking about certain things like love and loss and memory, as songs can be (and that, also like songs, it is only ever as good as it sounds). For most psychoanalysts, including Freud, Great Artists tend to provide either vivid illustration or prestigious confirmation of psychoanalytic insights. Melanie Klein, for example, found nothing she didn’t already know in the Oresteia, and even Lacan found Hamlet reassuring.’

A Seamstress in Tel Aviv

Adam Phillips, 14 September 1989

Psychoanalysts after Freud have to acknowledge that the founder of psychoanalysis was never properly trained. He was not psychoanalysed in the conventional sense – that is, by someone else; and there was no one to tell him whether what he was doing with his patients was appropriate. That Freud, paradoxically, was the first ‘wild’ analyst is one of the difficult facts in the history of psychoanalysis. It is easy to forget that in what is still its most creative period – roughly between 1893 and 1939 – when Freud, Jung, Ferenczi, Abraham, Klein and Anna Freud herself were learning what they thought of as the ‘new science’, they had no formal training. Later generations of analysts dealt with their envy of Freud and his early followers by making their trainings increasingly rigorous, by demanding and fostering the kind of compliance – usually referred to as ‘conviction’ – that tended to stifle originality. Psychoanalytic training became a symptom from which a lot of people never recovered.’

Making a mess

Adam Phillips, 2 February 1989

It is a paradox of some interest that though psychoanalysis was, from the beginning, about the relationship between justice and love, there is no explicit description in Freud’s work of what constitutes a good life. And this is one of the many things that distinguish him from his followers and critics. It was also, of course, part of Freud’s disingenuous rationalism to assert that psychoanalysis could never be any kind of weltanschauung, that it was exempt from traditional moral questions like whether virtue can be taught, or whether we need to know what we are doing in order to be good. Confronted, however, with patients who claimed to have been seduced as children by parents or other adults, Freud very quickly came up against his own personal preferences – which he would later call resistances – and the normative standards of his culture. There were clearly certain things which were deemed absolutely unacceptable for adults to do to children and these could only be adequately described in terms of sexuality. Freud’s first patients, though, were mostly women who claimed to have been seduced by their fathers. It is Estela Welldon’s point in this often sympathetic book that maternal incest may be more pervasive than Freud was able to recognise.’

Freud and his Mother

Adam Phillips, 31 March 1988

Psychoanalysis is a conversation that enables people to understand what stops them having the kinds of conversation they want. But as the unconscious and sexuality have gradually been replaced by developmental theory and normative standards of emotional health, the conversation has become predictable, when people’s lives, of course, are not. As psychoanalysis has become one of the helping professions, it has lost some of its original vitality. Despite Freud’s affirmation that it is not more truthful to be serious, psychoanalytic theory, at least in Britain, is not in the least bit funny. It is always sober and usually earnest. The romance of psychoanalysis has been undermined by coercive fantasies of rigour and expertise promoted by the owners of psychoanalysis.

How to be Viennese

Adam Phillips, 5 March 1987

In Fin de Siècle Vienna politics had become the least convincing of the performing arts. Life, Kraus wrote, had become an effort that deserved a better cause. By the turn of the century it was not politicians but actors, painters, writers and musicians who had captured the imagination of the upper middle classes. As the Hapsburg Empire disintegrated, it seemed to Kraus that life in Vienna was no longer imitating art: it was parodying it. And for Kraus it was the ‘mental self-mutilation of mankind through its press’ that had done most to trivialise and misrepresent what was becoming a terrifying political situation. Kraus exposed, often by imitation, the new decadent facetiousness. Journalists, he wrote, were now capable of ‘launching a premiere one day and a war the next’. They ‘write because they have nothing to say, and have something to say because they write’. Editing and writing most of his own newspaper Die Fackel (the Torch) in Vienna from 1899 to 1936, he believed that the collapse of the Empire and the drift to world war could only be accurately documented as satire. Only the satirist was honestly suspicious. All forms of representation, advertisements, the wearing of beards, the way people strolled in the streets, had to be understood in terms of what it was they were being used to misrepresent. Events, and the reporting of events, had to be interpreted now as artistic genres concealing vested interests. In May 1916, in the middle of the war, it was still not clear to Kraus what play of Shakespeare’s was actually being performed. By October 1918 he was clear that it was Hamlet.

Rebecca, take off your gown

Adam Phillips, 8 May 1986

‘What have I in common with Jews?’ Kafka asked in his diary in 1913: ‘I have almost nothing in common with myself.’ By 1945 European Jews had a catastrophic history in common. ‘Jews are people who are not what anti-semites say they are,’ Philip Roth once wrote, but it is Gilman’s contention in this book that the Jews have tried to become indistinguishable from their enemies: that in the process of assimilation they have had to internalise the anti-semitism of their host nations. Since the Middle Ages the Jews of Central Europe, in order to survive, have had to recognise an unacceptable Jew within – and disown him. What this has in practice entailed is that most virulent, because most contradictory, form of anti-semitism, Jewish anti-semitism. Gilman describes this as the inevitable double-bind of the outsider: the only acceptable Jew is the non-Jew. In his view, ‘the ubiquitousness of self-hatred … has shaped the self-awareness of those treated as different perhaps more than they themselves have been aware.’ He does not make the unacceptably glib point that the Jews simply colluded in their own destruction, but he does make it plain that a lot of powerful anti-semitic polemic had been written by Jews as well as non-Jews before the Nazis. There was, as it were, a great tradition of Jewish anti-semitism.’

Poem: ‘Intruder’

Adam Phillips, 15 May 1980

In the night house no one has the knack of keeping things quiet;

uncoloured walls fumble, furniture is posed in the nothing-snow, familiar and unreachable,

the depletion of lamps, the rage of book-shelves, bits chatter under- foot in the carpet;

I interrupt walking through a primitive community, I muffle myself for a drink.

In my review of Fritz Wittels’s memoir (LRB, 4 January) I suggested that before we condemn Wittels too eagerly for his resentment at women having lives of their own, ‘we should consider whether we have never had this thought ourselves; and what we do with it once we have had it.’ It seems to some readers that by ‘we’ I was merely referring to men, and that I was implying...

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Nicholas Spice, 8 January 2004

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D.J. Enright, 25 March 1993

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No Trousers

Claude Rawson, 20 December 1990

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War Zone

Sherry Turkle, 23 November 1989

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