In Attention Seeking, his most recent essay collection, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips challenges the assumption that what we are attracted to, and thus what we pay attention to, in some respects defines who we are. What if our compulsion to focus attention were read, alternatively, as representing a kind of shield against attention’s dizzying promiscuity? What if we were to view what we don’t attend to – our inattention – as being equally revelatory?
This might seem familiar, even trite, to those versed in psychoanalysis: what we are aware of is only ever telling us half the story; our unconscious lives, opaque as they may be, are as much a part of us as anything else. Yet, as with Phillips’ other writing, it’s less the destination and more the journey that counts. He doesn’t exactly offer answers or conclusions; and if he did, these would be neither earth-shatteringly original nor easy to summarise. Nonetheless, braided together by his preferred punctuation mark, the semicolon, his musings and hairpin turns of thought are thrillingly convoluted; what might harden into dictum is always teased out in all its subtle permutations.
This can make for challenging, and for many maddening, reading. Phillips’ prose demands we pay attention. And if we fail to do so, well, isn’t that just as interesting?
Words: Luke Warde