Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Adam Phillips’

18 JULY, 2014

Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on Our Capacity for “Fertile Solitude”

By:

From teenage rebellion to self-reliance, how we learn to be alone.

“All of humanity’s problems,” the French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in 1654, “stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Three centuries later, the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky shared his single most urgent piece of advice to the young: learn to enjoy your own company. And yet today, in the golden age of solo living, Pascal’s words ring all the more urgently true and Tarkovsky’s counsel seems all the more unattainable. The age of Social Everything makes the art of solitude appear increasingly difficult to attain, even terrifying.

Why?

The great British psychoanalytical writer Adam Phillips examines the psychological mechanisms and pathologies underpinning our aversion to solitude in an essay titled “On Risk and Solitude,” found in his wonderfully stimulating collection On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (public library) — the same slim, potent 1993 volume that gave us Phillips on why the capacity for boredom is essential for a full life.

One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince. Click image for more.

Phillips begins at the beginning: True to his profession, he traces our capacity for solitude — for “productive solitude” — to the formative experiences of childhood:

An affinity for solitude is comparable only to one’s affinity for certain other people. And yet one’s first experience of solitude, like one’s first experience of the other, is fraught with danger… The absence of the visible and the absence of the object; and the risk, as in dreams, that innermost thoughts will come to light. For this reason, perhaps, it is the phobia relating to solitude that for some people persists throughout life.

[...]

It is the infant waiting too long for his mother that is traveling toward death because, unattended, he is in the solitary confinement of his body. Solitude is a journey, a potentially fatal journey, for an infant in the absence of sufficient maternal care. But it is worth remembering that the infant in the dark, the infant by himself, is not only waiting for the mother. Sleep, for example, is not exclusively a state of anticipation. It is, of course, difficult to conceive in psychoanalytic terms of an absence that is not, in some way, anticipatory.

Through desire the child discovers his solitude, and through solitude his desire. He depends upon a reliable but ultimately elusive object that can appease but never finally satisfy him.

Illustration from 'The Baby Tree' by Sophie Blackall. Click image for more.

In line with the notion of “limbic revision,” Phillips stresses the formative power of our early bonds and the importance of a psychoemotionally sound, stable, and nurturing upbringing:

The clamorously dependent infant with a sufficiently attentive mother ends up, so the normative story goes, as an adult with a capacity for solitude, for whom withdrawal is an escape not merely, or solely, from persecution, but toward a replenishing privacy. But dependence, we assume, does not simply disappear; somewhere, we think, there is an object, or the shadow of an object. So, in states of solitude what does the adult depend upon? To what does he risk entrusting himself?

[..,]

The infant depends on the mother and her care to prevent him from being out of his depth; in adolescence, as we know, this protection is both wished for and defied. Risks are taken as part of the mastery of noncompliance. One way the adolescent differentiates himself, discovers his capacity for solitude — for self-reliance that is not merely a triumph over this need for the object — is by taking and making risks. He needs, unconsciously, to endanger his body, to experiment with the representations of it, and he does this out of the most primitive form of solitude, isolation.

Phillips cites the legendary British pediatrician Donald Winnicott — the subject of a definitive biography by Phillips — who wrote in his influential 1984 treatise Deprivation and Delinquency:

The adolescent is essentially an isolate. It is from a position of isolation that he or she launches out into what may result in relationships… The adolescent is repeating an essential phase of infancy, for the infant too is an isolate, at least until he or she has been able to establish the capacity for relating to objects that are outside magical control. The infant becomes able to recognize and to welcome the existence of objects that are not part of the infant, but this is an achievement. The adolescent repeats this struggle.

Illustration from Now To Be a Nonconformist, 1968. Click image for more.

Phillips argues that one primary domain of the teenager’s foray into risk and quest for personal agency in solitude — as any parent of a tattoo-hungry, makeup-militant, sex-crazed teenager can attest — is the body. He writes:

To the adolescent [the body] is like the analyst in the transference, the most familiar stranger. In puberty the adolescent develops what can be accurately referred to as a transference to his own body; what crystallize in adolescence, what return partly as enactment through risk, are doubts about the mother and the holding environment of infancy. These doubts are transferred on to the body, turned against it, as it begins to represent a new kind of internal environment, a more solitary one. That is to say, the adolescent begins to realize that the original mother is his body.

But risk, Phillips is careful to point out, serves a deeper purpose in the architecture of our character than mere transcendence of the body — it allows us to cultivate the very value system that defines who we are, wherein the contours of what is worth risking shape what is worth having:

Adolescence … recapitulates something of infancy but in dramatically modified form. From adolescence onward the link between risk and solitude becomes a vivid and traumatic issue. But the pressing question of risk is clearly bound up with something that certain psychoanalysts after Freud have seen as central to early development: a capacity for concern. We create risk when we endanger something we value, whenever we test the relationship between thrills and virtues. So to understand, or make conscious, what constitutes a risk for us — our own personal repertoire of risks — is an important clue about what it is that we do value.

Phillips returns to Winnicott’s theories of development and explores the relationship between risk, solitude, and creativity — or what Winnicott called “creative living” and defined as a process requiring the search for an environment or haven “that would survive the person’s most passionate destructiveness.” Phillips captures that interplay beautifully:

The risk in destructiveness is that it may not be withstood; the risk of establishing one’s solitude is the risk of one’s potential freedom.

Phillips concludes by considering what defines the best kind of solitude. Describing a state that pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would later come to call flow — something the composer Tchaikovsky described vividly in an 1878 letter — Phillips writes:

A fertile solitude is a benign forgetting of the body that takes care of itself… A productive solitude, the solitude in which what could never have been anticipated appears, is linked with a quality of attention.

Illustration from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc. Click image for more.

Quoting Nietzsche’s famous words on solitude, Phillips returns to Winnicott’s work and the role of our earliest experiences in shaping our capacity for such “fertile solitude”:

Although the wish for solitude can be a denial of dependence, a capacity for solitude may be its fullest acknowledgement.

[...]

The precursor of the capacity for solitude is the child in the reliable, unimpinging presence of the mother who would cover the risks. If the mother is there, he can lose himself in a game; and optimally, in Winnicott’s work, mother is always there presiding over our solitude… For Freud, solitude could be described only as an absence, for Winnicott only as a presence. It is a significant measure of difference.

And still the question remains: to what do we risk entrusting ourselves in solitude? Although God is no longer our perpetual witness, we have our own available ghosts, our constitutive psychoanalytic fictions — the unconscious, the good internal object, the developmental process, the body and its destiny, language. Perhaps in solitude we are, as we say, simply “on our own.” Is it not, after all, the case that the patient comes to analysis to reconstitute his solitude through the other, the solitude that only he can know?

On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored is an excellent read in its entirety. Sample it further here and complement it with how to be alone.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

19 JUNE, 2014

Legendary Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on Why the Capacity for Boredom Is Essential for a Full Life

By:

“Boredom … protects the individual, makes tolerable for him the impossible experience of waiting for something without knowing what it could be.”

When was the last time you were bored — truly bored — and didn’t instantly spring to fill your psychic emptiness by checking Facebook or Twitter or Instagram? The last time you stood in line at the store or the boarding gate or the theater and didn’t reach for your smartphone seeking deliverance from the dreary prospect of forced idleness? A century and a half ago, Kierkegaard argued that this impulse to escape the present by keeping ourselves busy is our greatest source of unhappiness. A century later, Susan Sontag wrote in her diary about the creative purpose of boredom. And yet ours is a culture that equates boredom with the opposite of creativity and goes to great lengths to offer us escape routes.

Children have a way of asking deceptively simple yet existentially profound questions. Among them, argues the celebrated British psychoanalytical writer Adam Phillips, is “What shall we do now?” In an essay “On Being Bored,” found in his altogether spectacular 1993 collection On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (public library), Phillips writes:

Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom: that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Phillips, of course, is writing more than two decades before the modern internet had given us the ubiquitous “social web” that envelops culture today. This lends his insights a new layer of poignancy as we consider the capacity for boredom — not only in children, though especially in children, but also in adults — amidst our present age of constant access to and unmediated influx of external stimulation. This is particularly pause-giving considering the developmental function of boredom in shaping our psychological constitution and the way we learn to pay attention to the world — or not. Phillips writes:

Boredom is actually a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated; and in this sense boredom is akin to free-floating attention. In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching to a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize… The capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child.

Because of how profoundly our early experiences shape our psychoemotional patterns, it’s inescapable to contemplate how this translates into our adult capacities. How easily and uncomfortably the phrase “modern adult” can replace every mention of the child in the following passage from Phillips’s essay:

Experiencing a frustrating pause in his usually mobile attention and absorption, the bored child quickly becomes preoccupied by his lack of preoccupation. Not exactly waiting for someone else, he is, as it were, waiting for himself. Neither hopeless nor expectant, neither intent nor resigned, the child is in a dull helplessness of possibility and dismay. In simple terms the child always has two concurrent, overlapping projects: the project of self-sufficiency in which use of, and need for, the other is interpreted, by the child, as a concession; and a project of mutuality that owns up to a dependence. In the banal crisis of boredom, the conflict between the two projects is once again renewed.

It is unsurprising then, Phillips notes, that the child’s boredom evokes in adults a reprimand, a sense of disappointment, an accusation of failure — that is, provided boredom is even agreed to or acknowledged in the first place. In a certain sense, we treat boredom like we treat childishness itself — as something to be overcome and grown out of, rather than simply as a different mode of being, an essential one at that. Phillips adds:

How often, in fact, the child’s boredom is met by that most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult’s wish to distract him — as though the adults have decided that the child’s life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.

That, perhaps, is what Cheryl Strayed alluded to so beautifully nearly twenty years later, when she wrote that “the useless days will add up to something [because] these things are your becoming.”

Illustration by D.B. Johnson from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

Phillips goes on to consider more directly the evolution of boredom from childhood into adulthood:

As adults boredom returns us to the scene of inquiry, to the poverty of our curiosity, and the simple question, What does one want to do with one’s time? What is a brief malaise for the child becomes for the adult a kind of muted risk. After all, who can wait for nothing?

[…]

We can think of boredom as a defense against waiting, which is, at one remove, an acknowledgement of the possibility of desire… In boredom, we can also say, there are two assumptions, two impossible options: there is something I desire, and there is nothing I desire. But which of the two assumptions, or beliefs, is disavowed is always ambiguous, and this ambiguity accounts, I think, for the curious paralysis of boredom… In boredom there is the lure of a possible object of desire, and the lure of the escape from desire, of its meaninglessness.

[…]

Boredom, I think, protects the individual, makes tolerable for him the impossible experience of waiting for something without knowing what it could be. So that the paradox of the waiting that goes on in boredom is that the individual does not know what he was waiting for until he finds it, and that often he does not know what he is waiting… Clearly, we should speak not of boredom, but of boredoms, because the notion itself includes a multiplicity of moods and feelings that resist analysis; and this, we can say, is integral to the function of boredom as a kind of blank condensation of psychic life.

Lamenting that we tend to treat boredom as a handicap and to deny it as an opportunity, Phillips cites the story of “a precociously articulate eleven-year-old boy” who was once a patient of his, brought in by a mother who believed her son was “more miserable than he realized,” in large part due to his “misleading self-representation.” Phillips found that this superficial self, which the boy donned as a shield for disapproval, was largely tied to the experience of boredom. Once again, Phillips offers a passage all too intimately applicable to the modern human condition beyond just childhood:

[The boy] was mostly in a state of what I can only describe as blank exuberance about how full his life was. As he was terrified of his own self-doubt, I asked him very few questions, and they were always tactful. But at one point, more direct than I intended to be, I asked him if he was ever bored. He was surprised by the question and replied with a gloominess I hadn’t seen before in this relentlessly cheerful child, “I’m not allowed to be bored.” I asked him what would happen if he allowed himself to be bored, and he paused for the first time, I think, in the treatment, and said, “I wouldn’t know what I was looking forward to, ” and was, momentarily, quite panic-stricken by this thought.

Phillips directed the treatment toward the boy’s “false self” and his belief that being good, by the token of his mother’s approval, meant having lots of interests that didn’t leave room for the vice of boredom. Over the course of the following year, Phillips helped the boy develop his capacity to be bored. He recounts:

I once suggested to him that being good was a way of stopping people knowing him, to which he agreed but added, “When I’m bored I don’t know myself.”

Illustration by from 'The Hole' by Øyvind Torseter. Click image for more.

This, I think, is how we as grownups in the modern world often go through life. Our version of being good is being productive. Choosing constant distraction or busyness — two sides of the same coin — we seek to avoid not boredom and passivity, but end up robbing ourselves of presence, because presence presupposed a detachment from what we look forward to, what is to come, and a mindful groundedness in what is.

This is the cultural pathology of our time: If we stopped doing what we do, we might not know who we are. As I’ve reflected before, to cultivate the art of presence in the age of productivity is no easy feat.

On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored is a beautiful and psyche-stretching read in its entirety. Complement it with this cultural history of boredom, then revisit Phillips’s fantastic conversation with Paul Holdengräber on why psychoanalysis is like literature for the soul.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

09 JUNE, 2014

The Poetics of the Psyche: Adam Phillips on Why Psychoanalysis Is Like Literature and How Art Soothes the Soul

By:

“Everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.”

“A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer,” Susan Sontag once said. The object of the writer’s observation isn’t just the outer world but also — and perhaps even more so — the inner. In that regard, the writer bears a striking similarity to another professional observer — the psychotherapist. That’s precisely what Adam Phillips — Britain’s most celebrated psychoanalytical writer and the author of such immeasurably stimulating reads as Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature, On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life, and the particularly wonderful On Kindness — explores in his wide-ranging conversation with Paul Holdengräber, several years in the making, part of The Paris Review’s legendary interview series.

Phillips, who read Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections at the age of seventeen and was profoundly influenced by it, reflects on his early educational experience:

This was conveyed very powerfully — that the way to learn how to live and to live properly was to read English literature — and it worked for me. I was taught close, attentive reading, and to ironize the ambitions of grand theory.

Like Kafka, who memorably considered what books do for the human soul — a question Carl Sagan also addressed beautifully, and one I too once contemplated in answering a 9-year-old girl’s inquiry — Phillips reflects on the essential reward of reading:

It’s not as though when I read I’m gathering information, or indeed can remember much of what I read. I know the books that grip me, as everybody does, but their effect is indiscernible. I don’t quite know what it is… There are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. There’s something about these books that we want to go on thinking about, that matters to us. They’re not just fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about.

Holdengräber cites an essay by the legendary British pediatrician Donald Winnicott, whose definitive biography Phillips penned in 1988:

HOLDENGRÄBER: It seems natural that an interest in literature and in Winnicott should go hand in hand. In Winnicott’s essay “On the Capacity to Be Alone,” he writes that the goal for the child is to be alone in the presence of the mother. For a long time this has seemed to me the single best definition of reading.

PHILLIPS: That idea was one of Winnicott’s most radical, because what he was saying was that solitude was prior to the wish to transgress. That there’s something deeply important about the early experience of being in the presence of somebody without being impinged upon by their demands, and without them needing you to make a demand on them. And that this creates a space internally into which one can be absorbed. In order to be absorbed one has to feel sufficiently safe, as though there is some shield, or somebody guarding you against dangers such that you can “forget yourself ” and absorb yourself, in a book, say. Or, for the child, in a game. It must be one of the precursors of reading, I suppose. I think for Winnicott it would be the definition of a good relationship if, in the relationship, you would be free to be absorbed in something else.

Phillips, who wrote in the preface to Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature that “psychoanalysis, at its best, should be a profession of popularizers of interesting ideas about the difficulties and exhilarations of living,” uses the springboard of the parallels between children’s psychology and reading to consider the broader allure of psychoanalysis:

Psychoanalysis starts from the position that there is no cure, but that we need different ways of living with ourselves and different descriptions of these so-called selves.

The great thing about the psychoanalytic treatment is that it doesn’t work in the usual sense of work. I don’t mean by this to avoid the fact that it addresses human suffering. I only mean that it takes for granted that an awful lot of human suffering is simply intractable, that there’s a sense in which character is intractable. People change, but there really are limits. One thing you discover in psychoanalytic treatment is the limits of what you can change about yourself or your life. We are children for a very long time.

[…]

The point is that it’s an experiment in what your life might be like if you speak freely to another person—speak and allow that person to show you the ways in which you stop yourself thinking and speaking freely. I don’t mean by that that it doesn’t change symptoms. I know by my own experience that it does. But I think the most interesting thing about it is its unpredictability. If you buy a fridge, there are certain things you will be guaranteed. If you buy a psychoanalysis, you won’t be. It’s a real risk, and that also is the point of it. Patients come because they are suffering from something. They want that suffering to be alleviated. Ideally, in the process of doing the analysis, they might find their suffering is alleviated or modified, but also they might discover there are more important things than to alleviate one’s suffering.

When Holdengräber points out the word appetite frequents Phillips’s vocabulary in discussing psychoanalysis, Phillips offers a somewhat counterintuitive framework for the two goals of his profession:

Analysis should do two things that are linked together. It should be about the recovery of appetite, and the need not to know yourself… Symptoms are forms of self-knowledge. When you think, I’m agoraphobic, I’m a shy person, whatever it may be, these are forms of self-knowledge. What psychoanalysis, at its best, does is cure you of your self-knowledge. And of your wish to know yourself in that coherent, narrative way. You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself. Because the point of knowing oneself is to contain one’s anxieties about appetite. It’s only worth knowing about the things that make one’s life worth living, and whether there are in fact things that make it worth living.

Illustration from 'Freud,' a graphic biography. Click image for details.

Echoing philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s meditation on living with our human fragility, Phillips adds:

Everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.

We all have self-cures for strong feeling. Then the self-cure becomes a problem, in the obvious sense that the problem of the alcoholic is not alcohol but sobriety. Drinking becomes a problem, but actually the problem is what’s being cured by the alcohol. By the time we’re adults, we’ve all become alcoholics. That’s to say, we’ve all evolved ways of deadening certain feelings and thoughts.

Citing Kafka’s famous letter, Phillips points to art — something Alain de Botton explored more deeply in Art as Therapy. Phillips tells Holdengräber:

One of the reasons we admire or like art, if we do, is that it reopens us in some sense — as Kafka wrote in a letter, art breaks the sea that’s frozen inside us. It reminds us of sensitivities that we might have lost at some cost.

And yet those sensitivities to our inner lives become increasingly muffled by the constant influx of external stimulation brought on by the century of the self. Echoing Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that “the modern version of introspection is the sum total of all those highly individualized choices that we make about the material content of our lives,” Phillips considers the solace of human conversation:

It can be extremely difficult to know what you want, especially if you live in a consumer, capitalist culture which is phobic of frustration — where the moment you feel a glimmer of frustration, there’s something available to meet it. Now, shopping and eating and sex may not be what you’re wanting, but in order to find that out you have to have a conversation with somebody. You can’t sit in a room by yourself like Rodin’s Thinker…

In conversation things can be metabolized and digested through somebody else — I say something to you and you can give it back to me in different forms — whereas you’ll notice that your own mind is very often extremely repetitive. It is very difficult to surprise oneself in one’s own mind. The vocabulary of one’s self-criticism is so impoverished and clichéd. We are at our most stupid in our self-hatred.

Returning to the parallels between psychoanalysis and literature, Phillips gives greater granularity to the analogy:

Psychoanalytic sessions are not like novels, they’re not like epic poems, they’re not like lyric poems, they’re not like plays — though they’re rather like bits of dialogue from plays. But they do seem to me to be like essays, nineteenth-century essays. There is the same opportunity to digress, to change the subject, to be incoherent, to come to conclusions that are then overcome and surpassed, and so on.

An essay is a mixture of the conversational and the coherent and has, to me, the advantages of both. There doesn’t have to be a beginning, a middle, and an end, as there tends to be in a short story. Essays can wander, they can meander.

Reflecting on the legacy of 19th-century essayists like Emerson and Lamb, Phillips defines the inherent psychology of the genre in terms that counter E.B. White’s notion of the essay as a mecca of narcissism and adds:

The essay is very rarely a fanatical form, it seems to me, partly because you’d just run out of steam. It would just be propaganda of the most boring sort. In order to write a compelling essay, you have to be able to change tone. I think you also have to be reflexively self-revising. It’s not that these things are impossible in other genres, but they’re very possible in essays. As the word essay suggests, it’s about trying something out, it’s about an experiment. From the time I began writing — although this wasn’t conscious — I think that was the tradition I was writing in.

Like Edgar Allan Poe, who considered music the most sublime embodiment of the Poetic Principle and Edna St. Vincent Millay, who extolled music above all arts including her own, Phillips explores the symmetry between psychoanalysis and poetry through the lens of music and its capacity — even on a neurological level — to sidestep our conscious bulwarks and whisper directly to the soul:

I can remember the first time I heard Dylan’s voice, Neil Young, J.J. Cale, Joni Mitchell — that music made me imagine myself. It was so evocative. It taught you nothing, but you felt you’d learned everything you needed to know.

[…]

The emotional impact of music is so incommensurate with what people can say about it, and that seems to be very illustrative of something fundamental—that very powerful emotional effects often can’t be articulated. You know something’s happened to you but you don’t know what it is. You’ll find yourself going back to certain poems again and again. After all, they are only words on a page, but you go back because something that really matters to you is evoked in you by the words. And if somebody said to you, Well, what is it? or What do your favorite poems mean?, you may well be able to answer it, if you’ve been educated in a certain way, but I think you’ll feel the gap between what you are able to say and why you go on reading.

In the same way, a psychoanalysis bent on understanding people is going to be very limited. It’s not about redescribing somebody such that they become like a character in a novel. It’s really showing you how much your wish to know yourself is a consequence of an anxiety state — and how it might be to live as yourself not knowing much about what’s going on.

Inverting Maya Angelou’s lament about labeling others and echoing Joss Whedon’s excellent Wesleyan commencement address on embracing all our selves, Phillips issues the same admonition about our tendency to label — and thus narrow and proscribe, to use Angelou’s words — ourselves:

When people say, “I’m the kind of person who,” my heart always sinks. These are formulas, we’ve all got about ten formulas about who we are, what we like, the kind of people we like, all that stuff. The disparity between these phrases and how one experiences oneself minute by minute is ludicrous. It’s like the caption under a painting. You think, Well, yeah, I can see it’s called that. But you need to look at the picture.

But Phillips later observes that while we’re telling ourselves who we are, we’re also telling ourselves — and grieving — who we could’ve been, a kind of toxic speculative grief for the unrealized what-ifs of our lives, something he explores in greater detail in his most recent book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. He tells Holdengräber:

Missing all our supposed other lives is something modern people are keen to do. We are just addicted to alternatives, fascinated by what we can never do. As if we all had the wrong parents, or the wrong bodies, or the wrong luck…

The comfort would be something like, You don’t have to worry too much about trying to have the lives you think you’re missing. Don’t be tyrannized by the part of yourself that’s only interested in elsewhere.

Reflecting on his prolific career as a writer, Phillips considers the question of why one writes — a question memorably addressed by George Orwell, David Foster Wallace, Michael Lewis, Lynne Tillman, Italo Calvino, Susan Orlean, and Joy Williams — as well as the psychology of criticism:

You have to be really good at masochism to welcome criticism. But you know, you can’t write differently, even if you want to. You just have to be able to notice when you are boring yourself.

Echoing Joan Didion (“Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write.”), Phillips adds:

Anybody who writes knows you don’t simply write what you believe. You write to find out what you believe, or what you can afford to believe… When I write, things occur to me. It’s a way of thinking. But you can perform your thinking instead of just thinking it.

Unlike famous writers who ritualize their routines, Phillips sides with Bukowski and tells Holdengräber:

There is no creative process. I mean, I sit down and write. That is really what happens. I sit down in the morning on Wednesday and I write. And sometimes it doesn’t work and almost always it does work, and that’s it.

He points to an even more toxic cultural mythology that couples similar magical thinking with a profound confusion of causal relationship — the “tortured genius” ideal of the artist, which implies that one must suffer in order to create meaningful work. Instead, he suggests an alternative approach — the kind Ray Bradbury embodied and advocated — anchoring artistic endeavor not to cruelty but to kindness:

If you live in a culture which is fascinated by the myth of the artist, and the idea that the vocational artistic life is one of the best lives available, then there’s always going to be a temptation for people who are suffering to believe that to become an artist would be the solution when, in fact, it may be more of the problem. There are a number of people whom you might think of as casualties of the myth of the artist. They really should have done something else. Of course some people get lucky and find that art works for them, but for so many people it doesn’t. I think that needs to be included in the picture. Often one hears or reads accounts in which people will say, Well, he may have treated his children, wives, friends terribly, but look at the novels, the poems, the paintings. I think it’s a terrible equation. Obviously one can’t choose to be, as it were, a good parent or a good artist, but if the art legitimates cruelty, I think the art is not worth having. People should be doing everything they can to be as kind as possible and to enjoy each other’s company. Any art, any anything, that helps us do that is worth having. But if it doesn’t, it isn’t.

The full interview is available here. For more of Phillips’s singular mind, dive into his books, including the especially excellent On Kindness and Promises, Promises.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.