There's no point complaining that Adam Phillips's latest book is a ragbag of reviews, stray articles and occasional talks, when its pleasures owe so much to his gift for making a virtue of miscellany and turning the ephemeral into an art form. Phillips's mercurial mind prefers the unpredictability of patchwork to the consistency of whole cloth, and in Promises, Promises he delivers "a disarray of reflections" on topics as ill-sorted as the meaning of clutter, the hidden agenda of jokes, the repercussions of cloning, and the poetry of Jeremy Prynne.
It's true that the whole gallimaufry is governed by its author's twin passions for psychoanalysis and literature. In his preface, Phillips claims that what "both these old-fashioned things" have in common is that they "can inspire us to live more justly pleasurable, more morally intriguing lives". But the piety of that sentiment masks the fact that their true appeal lies in the scope they afford him to defy the tyranny of interpretation.
Literary critics and psychotherapists suffer from a compulsion to explain: to pluck out the heart of the mystery of the poem or the patient. When the two professions fuse in the psychoanalytic critic, the delusion of mastery becomes doubly seductive. "After all," Freud bragged in "Psychopathic Characters on Stage", "the conflict in Hamlet is so effectively concealed that it was left to me to unearth it." And a century of psychoanalytic criticism has laboured in Freud's wake to reduce literature to a ratification of its own conjectures. No wonder Nabokov refused disciples of "the Viennese witch doctor" admission to his enchanted world.
The author of Lolita would have had to think twice, however, before showing Adam Phillips the door. For Phillips is anything but an orthodox analyst. "I read psychoanalysis as poetry," he confesses, "so I don't have to worry about whether it is true or even useful, but only whether it is haunting or moving or intriguing or amusing." Reading literature is the best preparation Phillips can imagine for the practice of psychoanalysis - not because it provides a handy anthology of case studies, but because psychoanalysis has a lot to learn from literature about dispensing with dogma and embracing uncertainty.
Hence what Phillips cherishes in the American psychoanalyst Leslie Farber is the fact that he is "most impressed by what cannot be arranged or engineered or calculated", and consequently declines to reach conclusions where there are none to be reached. …