Tickling Our Minds

By McCrum, Robert | Newsweek, January 18, 2013 | Go to article overview

Tickling Our Minds


McCrum, Robert, Newsweek


Byline: Robert McCrum

Adam Phillips will make you think differently.

If you look out of the third-floor window of the book-cluttered flat in Notting Hill Gate where Adam Phillips holds consultations with his patients, and does much of his writing, you'll see a shop front for a sexy lingerie store, branded Strip.

Whatever this is--A command? An invitation? A threat?--it's strangely apt. Visit Phillips, or read his books, and you soon find the human condition laid bare in the most seductive way. However well defended you might be on going in, you will probably come out feeing naked, but also exhilarated.

The 58-year-old man who sits opposite me in a small wooden chair by the window has sometimes, in younger days, had an uncanny resemblance to Bob Dylan. Today, it must be said, he is aging rather better than the author of "Tangled Up in Blue." Phillips resists the title of literary shrink. In the U.K., where he lives and works, his reputation lies somewhere between a cult and a well-kept secret, a brilliantly articulate psychotherapist who (like Freud) uses his gifts as a writer to provoke our interest in the subtle mysteries of psychoanalysis.

He is instinctively discreet. Today, when we meet, Phillips answers my questions by looking away, scarcely meeting my gaze, perhaps because he understands that (if I did not know him better) I might become disconcerted by the awkwardness of his wandering right eye, a childhood trait. He is dressed like a graduate student in dark corduroy trousers, loafers, and a warm brown shirt. In some moods, he could seem like an inhabitant of Middle Earth; you might also mistake him for a professor, a poet, or even a wise man.

Phillips has been conducting the exploration of our unconscious desires for 20 years. He first came to prominence in 1993 with the publication of an essay collection entitled On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored. Since then he has continued his routine of writing one day and seeing patients the other four days, has published some 20 books, including On Flirtation, Monogamy, and Going Sane, and become both vanishingly elusive, but also discreetly celebrated.

His latest book, Missing Out, subtitled In Praise of the Unlived Life, will appear in the U.S. in February. Ostensibly, its subject is frustration (wishes unfulfilled, roads untaken, and desires sacrificed), but that's only the top line of his concerns. Another way to look at what's really going on in its pages is to consider Phillips's own career. The record suggests he's someone who has been inordinately talented in spotting his luck, or, in not missing out when it mattered.

Phillips was born in 1954, the son of second-generation British Jews of ambiguous Polish extraction. "There was a family joke," he tells me, "that they came from Omsk," a place that was sometimes Polish and sometimes Russian, depending on the flux of history. When his paternal Pincus-Levy grandparents landed in Wales, they were given the Welsh name of Phillips and settled in Swansea, later moving to Cardiff.

These grandparents, he says, were "typical Jewish emigres. Moderately observant Jews, poor but lower-middle-class poor. My father's father was a tailor and a traveling salesman." Phillips's own father, the eldest of three, was "the special one" who went to the local grammar school and won a scholarship to Oxford before the outbreak of World War II, a remarkable achievement.

Both these generations of Phillipses adapted quickly and with relish. His grandfather fought with the British Army in the Great War and was awarded a Military Cross. In the Second World War, his father served in a tank regiment in North Africa and also won a medal. He "hugely enjoyed" the experience, according to his son: "for the first time, he could encounter the kind of upper-class Englishmen he had not been able to meet before."

Whatever else they were, the Phillipses were Anglophiles. …

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