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

“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.

Published June 9, 2014




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