Magazine article The Spectator

The Analyst Giveth and the Analyst Taketh Away

Magazine article The Spectator

The Analyst Giveth and the Analyst Taketh Away

Article excerpt

PROMISES, PROMISES: ESSAYS ON LITERATURE AND PSYCHOANALYSIS

by Adam Phillips

Faber, L10, pp. 376

Adam Phillips's range and knowledge are very impressive, extending from Hamlet to humour to anorexia. Some of the essays are reprints of book reviews, which include topics such as Jacques Lacan, Walter Pater, Nijinsky, the poems of Housman and Seidel, and Martin Amiss novel Night Train, all treated within some sort of psychoanalytic context. But from the very beginning Phillips makes clear that he does not intend to treat psychoanalysis as a science, as Freud would have it, and that his book is more committed to promoting `happiness and inspiration (and the miscellaneous) than to self-knowledge, rigorous thinking, or the Depths of Being'. Psychoanalysis, he says, values truthfulness but not truth.

In another essay he writes that what we want from reading psychoanalysis, and what we want from literature that is not psychoanalysis, can be both quite different - and dismayingly similar. This passion for both 'is' and `is not' in the same sentence, or the ones that follow, is characteristic of the whole book. Again `that which the subject wishes to escape from but cannot is considered to be his essence ... and we only try to escape from that which is by definition inescapable' is a good description of the way he thinks. He is entirely at home with Lacan's statement that an act always misunderstands itself. But the trouble is that while his prose is elegant, these repeated givings and takings away become tedious as they are not genuine paradoxes but poetic and ultimately uninformative prose.

Anorexia in one of his patients is related to Melville's story of Bartleby who refuses to eat and he sees this serious disorder as an experiment in living, though it can lead, as in Bartleby's case, to death. Then again he talks of an anorexic being so in love with her anorexia that she dare not violate her passion by eating. Lovely image, but has it any basis in reality, particularly as leading workers in the field claim it is about control?

In `Poetry and Psychoanalysis', rather than looking at what psychoanalysis can do for poetry he looks to see what poetry can do for psychoanalysis. Analysts, he claims, have some sort of commitment to poetry as a truthful eloquence. …

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