Magazine article The Spectator

Practising the Impossible Profession

Magazine article The Spectator

Practising the Impossible Profession

Article excerpt

SIDE EFFECTS : ESSAYS by Adam Phillips Hamish Hamilton, £25, pp. 317, ISBN 0241142113 . £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Adam Phillips is a psychoanalyst and these 27 essays, relating to lectures and reviews, have a strong psychoanalytic focus. In the preface Phillips suggests that psychoanalysis has got over its honeymoon belief that it is a universal panacea, and can now enjoy its relish of sexuality with amusement, as well as the straddling of conflicts rather than their resolution. It will be, he says, as useful as anyone finds it to be. This view sets the tone of the book. It is heavily based on Freud but there are occasional references to Lacan, Winnicot and Bion. There is little reference to the unconscious or the id and superego. On the whole it is rather mystical.

Much of it reads like organised free association, but beautifully written. Yes, I know that seems like a contradiction, but then so much of the writing of Phillips contains contradictions or some sort of paradox. Indeed, it seems to me that one of the problems with psychoanalysis is that it is difficult to be wrong as anything can be explained, and there is no evidence with which it assesses any idea or claim. Everything seems possible and this must make it very attractive to those who practise it -- how nice to have virtually no constraints.

Consider these typical views expressed by Phillips: psychoanalysis does not cure people but shows them what is incurable; the understanding of psychoanalysis involves a continual resistance to it; what happens in therapy has more to do with the therapist's past than the patient's; brief therapy is no worse or better; what could be more mine and not mine than my own desire?

So how does one evaluate the technique and its ideas? You will not find the answer here. Psychoanalysis is described as a form of therapy that works by attending to side effects like what falls out of the patient's pocket when he turns upside-down. Evidence of the value to patients of psychoanalysis is nowhere in this book, nor is there any attempt to provide evidence for the validity of its ideas. Nor are there any examples of what happens in a therapy session. Free association is at its core, but again no examples are given, nor any evidence for its value. …

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