The British psychotherapist, Adam Phillips, is one of our foremost contemporary essayists. He is most recently the author of One Way and Another. His other works include On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored, Houdini’s Box, and On Balance. He is the general editor of the Penguin Classics translations of Sigmund Freud, and a regular contributor to the London Review of Books. During our conversation, we agreed that I would inevitably make Phillips up; that, as in any exchange, the interview involves getting each other wrong as well as right. ‘Why do we feel we need to control the versions of ourselves in circulation?’ he asks. Clearly I do feel such a need: in what follows, I have made myself up too, censoring my usual inarticulacies. Phillips, however, is quite as eloquent in person as he is on paper.
The title, One Way and Another, made me think of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. Is refusing that binary – that ‘or’ – a way of remaining in flirtatious proximity to different possibilities?
Well, not only flirtatious, but just to offset the idea that psychoanalysis is the way. What’s interesting is a cultural conversation in which there can be lots of aspects, lots of ways of looking at things without needing to believe that one version is authoritative. I think I like the phrase partly because it’s sort of ordinary.
It also suggests a reluctance, perhaps, to choose between literary criticism and psychoanalysis. Do you feel a conflict between these disciplines?
The experience is that they’re seamless – in that I don’t feel a conflict. Of course they are very different, but I’m sure these two things are mutually animating. They’re linked – but it’s very hard for me to make the links because they’re not clear causal links. I do psychoanalysis four days a week and I write one day a week and that works for me. So I couldn’t be a writer and I couldn’t be a psychoanalyst but I can do both.
This choice of both goes against what you see, in the ‘Coda’ to this volume, as a general distrust of the essay form among psychoanalysts. Does the essay render the analyst vulnerable in some way? Maybe we don’t like to think of our analyst as being vulnerable.
Yes – I think that’s absolutely right. It’s about the acknowledgement that there’s a sense in which everybody is equally vulnerable. You go and see an analyst because you want them to have something genuinely to offer you, and to be trustworthy. But those things are not incompatible with somebody being vulnerable. The essay interests me for lots of reasons, but that’s one of them: it doesn’t have a refuge of expertise available to it. So people can speak or write with a considerable sort of drive, and power, and authority, without needing to be invulnerable – or too superior or too authoritative.
In an LRB piece on T. S. Eliot, you say people are vulnerable where they once made room for other people. Could you tell me more about that?
We’re vulnerable where we need something from somebody else; and it could be protection, it could be nurture, it could be sex, it could be advice – but it’s oneself as a person in need of something. One is then vulnerable to the fact that one depends upon somebody one can’t control. It’s the only game in town, because it’s the only thing one can do, actually. Nevertheless it is a risk. But it seems to me that, insofar as one can let oneself be vulnerable, there’s the possibility of real exchange; whereas, if one needs to have fantasies of invulnerability, then one is inevitably isolated. You might be safe but deprived. Do you see what I mean?
You talk about genres being haunted by forms unchosen. So there’s a sense with Freud, for instance, that form runs away with him – that his intentionality and the form his writing takes are somehow at odds. Could one inadvertently write a psychoanalytic text? Could a poet do it?
I wouldn’t put it like that. But I think there’s an inevitable overlap because I think poets, and psychoanalysts, and philosophers and historians and novelists, all these people are all involved, consciously and unconsciously, in a kind of conversation with the bits of the culture they are moved by, or inspired by; and so, just as you might do a psychoanalytic reading of a Keats poem, you could do a Keatsian reading of psychoanalysis.
Your essay ‘Against Inhibition’ begins by evoking Kenneth Koch’s experience of ‘the benevolent influence of Freud’. Do you think Freud’s influence is always benevolent?
No. I think there’s no way of knowing. But I think it can be benevolent. And by benevolent, I simply mean that it might help us to flourish; that Freud has given us a language that people can use to become the people that they want to be; to have the lives that they might want. And so for those people it really works. For other people, it’s either irrelevant or offensive. Or just misleading
Some of the pieces in this collection distrust narrative, as though it closes something down. In telling a story, one leaves out so much. Yet psychoanalysis depends on telling. Can you tease out that contradiction?
It’s a hard one to tease out, because it is the heart of the matter. I’m interested in the idea of storytelling as a form in which all kinds of other things get said. So it’s not that I’m averse to it. I’m not actually very interested in stories – that’s true too – but, that aside, I think that stories are a good way of saying lots of different things. If I say that I’m going to tell you a story, then that deals with something and, in the telling of it, all sorts of other things might be communicated. Not calculated by me, because many of them will be unconscious… but it’s as though the story is a setting for other opportunities.
Variously, you describe the Oedipus story as one of desire that encounters obstacles; as a story of a mother who wants to kill her son; and even as a story of somebody who was simply very unlucky. Do fables allow the analyst greater latitude than other types of writing?
The risk of the Oedipus complex, for psychoanalysis, is it becomes a sort of essentialism. It becomes a fundamental myth. What the myth means is self-evident, and everything springs from that; but essentially the Oedipus story, like any story, has different aspects, as you’ve just said. Have you seen John Banville’s introduction?
Alas. Well, anyway: Banville says that I’m interested in Freud as a kind of fabulist. And I am. Freud seems to me to be one of many modernist writers who is making up fictions to explain the predicament of living now. What I’m interested in is putting together that with the possibility there could be a sort of anti-essentialism.
There’s a pathos in some of your work, particularly in your writing about kids. It often arises from a subject saying something that they themselves don’t really understand yet. Is psychoanalysis more beneficial to children – this might be a silly question – but does it cut to the quick more effectively?
It’s not a silly question at all. One of the interesting things about doing analysis with children is that there’s a sense in which it’s easier, because children are either really engaged by what you say or they have absolutely no interest in it at all. In other words, their defenses are very different. By the time you get to adulthood you’ve got an elaborate set of defenses. I think psychoanalysis is useful for the people who can use it. In other words, it’s very unpredictable and people have to come along and find out for themselves. And it’s to do with lots of things, including who the analyst happens to be. But there’s no way I could say ‘Yes, psychoanalysis is a wonderful thing’. It’s wonderful for some people; for some people it isn’t.
You often refer the poetry of John Ashbery. Can you tell me about his importance to you? Has it got to do with his affecting what’s glimpsed from the corner of your eye?
I think Ashbery’s really interesting for lots of reasons, but one is that thing you said… Ashbery has a similar preoccupation to Freud in that he’s interested in what’s going on slightly out of vision. We might be consciously concentrating on something, but things are going on in the peripheries. And so it’s a bit like when we were talking about storytelling. An analyst might listen to a story being told but might be interested in what’s going on in all sorts of other places. Or where there were sounds that reiterated or resonated somewhere. Ashbery’s poetry is like somebody following their own delirium in a way – although it’s very artful and crafted and so on. It’s not at all like dreams, but it’s like the best version of automatic writing. It’s a facility. It’s like very crafted free associations.
Somewhere Helen Vendler describes Robert Lowell’s sonnets as having the feel of the psychoanalytic session; because though you’re confined, anything can happen in that hour; you can talk about your mother, or Caligula. With Ashbery you lack that structure. His work is too amorphous. I wonder if different sorts of poems correspond to different psychoanalytic approaches.
It must be something a bit like you’ve said. It might be the difference between open forms and closed forms… because a psychoanalytic session is 45 / 50 minutes – like the sonnet is 14 lines, or whatever. Within it you can do all sorts of things, but you don’t break the form. Where, with free verse, of course, in a sense you’re neither breaking it nor not breaking it because it’s free. So I think – they’re complicated these things. I’m not sure that I’m – I don’t know what the word is –‘educated’ enough to be able to say more about that…
Okay, let me ask something more psychoanalytical. You mention Flow Chart in one of these essays. Ashbery admits that that poem was written in response to his mother’s death – though he says it’s not about his mother. Still, it’s full of elegiac allusions; smatterings of Lycidas and Thomas Gray and so on. What do you think about this?
Ashbery is so artful. As you say, it’s packed with literary allusions, in a way, but also you could not notice them. So when Ashbery says (he’s rightly very unrevealing in the details); ‘Well I wrote it after my mother’s death’, we might all think ‘what’s the link between his mother’s death and this poem?’ And of course you can make links – and there must be links – but, as you said, the poem is not about his mother’s death. It might incorporate that among other things. But then the question would be: ‘what’s his mother’s death about?’ And that might be a more revealing question.
I’m interested in how writers – particularly American ones – think about grief by constructing rhetorical defenses against it: like Emerson unable to get his son’s death ‘nearer’ to him.
Well, imagine if it wasn’t a defense against grief. You see? We’ve all been brought up in a sort of religion of mourning, where we really believe the profoundest thing we ever do is mourn. Then Emerson comes along and says: ‘There’s nothing more shallow than grief’. Or he says: ‘Don’t worry about Shakespeare and Plato. Just make up your own sentences’. And everybody is saying: ‘But this is a great cultural heritage’. Why I think Emerson is interesting is because he’s a real counter-voice to Freud, and all the mourners. He’s making us wonder whether life has to be construed as an organic process of loss. See, for example, lots of people will think that aging is the loss of youth. Why? It’s a very odd way of construing it. Or people might think life is very disappointing, but actually they must have got their expectations wrong because life’s just life. It seems to me that Emerson – and this is partly in spite of himself, it’s not at all entirely conscious – is really having some new thoughts. And so, the reason Emerson is important for me, apart from his style – well, there isn’t an apart from his style; his style’s integral to what he’s saying – but I think he’s really wondering about the way in which there are some fundamental beliefs that organize how we think and feel that may be, simply, one description among many.
You seem to think of psychoanalysis as ‘something to be going on from,’ in William James’s words; as a way of moving forward while remaining, in the Keatsian sense, negatively capable.
Yes, exactly – and I think that’s what I read for as well. I read for sentences – usually sentences – in which you suddenly feel that something has opened up. So there’s a combination of recognition and a kind of confoundedness at the same time. But it feels like it gives you something to go on from – as though something has moved on or out.
The sentence is such an important unit in your own writing. They – your sentences – seem to pull each other out of shape, even as they push each other forward; replay each other with slight variations. I think you could boil these essays down to a series of repetitions, but ones that metabolize each other.
I think that’s a very good description. You must, I presume, know this yourself; but it’s very difficult to have a sense of one’s own writing. You depend on somebody else to tell you about it. Everything you said sounds true to me, but all I can say is that’s its very unconscious, in the sense that I just write. Now the sentences really do matter to me. I don’t want to pretend they don’t. But there’s a limit to how much I can make them. Of course I do make them a bit. I do think the thing about reiteration and repetition is very important. Gertrude Stein is very important to me. Things are inevitably repeated a lot as a way of actually moving things on. There’s a sense in which there’s no such thing as a repetition. It’s always a moving something on. And there’s always a risk, of course, of getting stuck in it. So it’s like finding out whether you can keep moving or not.
What do you think about the connection between the interview, as a form, and the psychoanalytic session? Do you feel like I’m making you up?
Well, of course I’m being made up, as we all are. I think the question might be: why do we feel we need to control the versions of ourselves in circulation? Now if you were to go away from this and write something in which you said that I was anti-Semitic, for example, I would be, of course, outraged. But that’s the extreme end of the spectrum. There’s a huge middle ground here in which I assume you’re going to make me up – not totally, fantastically, but we’ve had this conversation and you will make something of it. I don’t want to live in a world where I’m saying to you, implicitly, or explicitly: I want to read what you write before you publish it; or, I want you to give me a transcript of the whole interview – because that seems to be to me the problem and not the solution. The point is that you make this up. The point is that I say whatever I have to say – of course it’s not arranged – and then you make whatever you can of it, in the knowledge that you don’t know what you’re doing either. You’ve got ideas, of course, but it’s unconscious, this, it’s mostly unconscious.
Imagine – this might be a way in which psychoanalysis is useful – imagine ourselves with our mothers, as children, and we say things, or initially make noises, and our mother’s interpret these. They have ideas about what we might be wanting and thinking and so on. That’s where we start, in this exchange, in which people are getting it wrong and right. And some kinds of wrongnesses are going to be very, very harmful for us, and make us enraged. And some aren’t; some are going to be interesting. But there isn’t a true account. There are endless, as it were, strong or weak readings.
Have we got time for one more?
This is a galleys question; I hope you don’t mind me saying that I spotted one or two typos.
At one point, you’ve written both ‘whether’ and ‘if’ together, as though you’re trying to decide between them. This might seem an unfair question –
Well, do you have a sense of the nuances of those words?
Yes, I do. Very much so. But often it’s as if they occur to me in the process of writing. Conditionals are very interesting in terms of (a bit like we said at the beginning) not foreclosing things, without believing things can be infinitely open – because they aren’t. But nevertheless, if you’ve got two words in the language which are ‘whether’ and ‘if’, you’ve got many more options in terms of what you’re able to imagine.
Is there an essay in the new book that you feel most proud of?
I don’t feel proud, but the essay I like most – I mean I like all of them in different ways – but the essay I like most is ‘Psychoanalysis, or Is it Worth it?’ Which is the one you like most?
‘On Being Bored’, I think. Do you believe in kindred spirits?
Oh yeah, absolutely. And I believe in unconscious affinities between, yeah…
– Joanne O’Leary
One Way And Another is published by Hamish Hamilton.