Muddied claims of a psychosleuth

On Flirtation - Terrors And Experts
December 22, 1995

Adam Phillips is a child psychoanalyst who has developed a considerable reputation as a writer. His second collection of essays on psychoanalytic topics, On Flirtation, originally appeared in 1994 and has now been re-issued as a paperback. It is joined by a new, extremely slim volume, Terrors and Experts, in which a number of articles written for different occasions have been retitled and presented as though they formed a single sequential book. In both books Phillips seeks to carry forward his attempt to rescue Freud from his dogmatic scientism and to construct a postmodernist version of psychoanalysis in which it is seen as a way of constructing "narratives" about people's inner lives. Psychoanalysis, he writes in Terrors and Experts, "tells persuasive stories about where misery comes from".

As these two books show, Phillips is capable of writing not only elegantly but also well. At one point in his review of Philip Roth's Patrimony he relates the episode where the novelist's dying father "beshats himself" in his hospital bed and is deeply embarrassed. When Phillips goes on to observe that "We are humiliated not by our acts but by our ideals" his words are aphoristic in the best sense of the word: ordinary language is used with economy in order to express a truth in a manner which almost inevitably provokes further thought. (If we are indeed humiliated by our ideals, in how many cases are we secretly drawn to ideals partly because they offer us a high-minded way of humiliating others?) In an academic culture which has increasingly succumbed to rationalistic obscurantism such pithy and emotionally fluent insights are rare indeed. The problem is that they are also exceedingly rare in Phillips's own writing. For although some of the pieces which Phillips first wrote for the London Review of Books are lucid, interesting and accessible, the same cannot be said of all his essays. Sporadically and without warning Phillips's prose has a tendency to spiral upwards through several intellectual registers into an altitude of rarefied abstraction or knowing allusion. Words, their assonances and their associations, frequently seem to take control of the writer who, perhaps uncertain of the meaning he wishes to convey, accepts his subservience as any good postmodernist should. Too often this results in paragraph after paragraph of hyper-abstract and deeply obscure prose in which empty gestures towards intellectual profundity almost entirely displace ordinary meaning.

Some genuine insights remain but both Phillips and his readers are forbidden, if they abide by his own doctrines, to recognise them as such. For in his anxiety to escape from the dogmatism of Freud, Phillips has fled into a relativism which is, in its way, just as narrowly prescriptive. In this modish relativism it is the very possibility of psychological truth which becomes anathema. The resulting dogma, more sweeping and more dangerous than any it seeks to displace, necessarily absolves the author from any responsibility for discriminating between what is true and what is false, between sense and nonsense.

Phillips himself teases out without any apparent embarrassment the embarrassing implications of his relativism when he writes that psychoanalysis, rather than being right or wrong, should be seen "as another good way of speaking about certain things like love and loss and memory, as songs can be". To this he adds that, "like songs it is only ever as good as it sounds".

The extraordinary claim that psychoanalysis "is only ever as good as it sounds" traps Phillips in something resembling the paradox of the Cretan liar. Does he make this claim because he believes it to be true, or only because it sounds good? Is his scepticism real, or is it a pose which masks an underlying reverence? A great deal of the energy in Phillips's writings is given over to denying that he feels any such reverence - either for Freud or for his theories. "The transference of psychoanalysts to Freud," he writes, "has been stultifying, and it is now. . . beyond a joke." But, apart from one or two studied lapses he is deeply respectful both towards Freud and towards Lacan.

Occasionally the mask of sceptical relativism slips. "In so far as the Oedipus complex is the truth of our being," he writes, "and it is surely impossible that it is not at least one constitutive story for imagining ourselves - the psychoanalyst becomes a kind of expert witness." Here Phillips momentarily accords to the theory of the Oedipus complex the status of "the truth" only in order to retract the phrase and describe it instead as "a constitutive story".

The double life which is led by the Oedipus complex in this sentence is revealing. What it suggests is that so long as psychoanalytic theory is operating as a concealed premise, it is allowed to sit upon the throne of truth without any embarrassment being caused. But as soon as the time comes for it to be presented in public it is required to remove its crown, lay aside its ermine robes and wear the ragged clothes of the common man. By treating psychoanalysis in this way Phillips is able to confer upon Freud the status of a monarch in the realm of ideas while all the time presenting himself as a republican relativist of the most subversive kind.

By denying the possibility that Freud's theories might ever be held to embody the truth, he evidently believes he has immunised them against any argument which seeks to demonstrate that they are false, foolish or dangerous. Yet once we recognise that Phillips's public mask of scepticism hides considerable reserves of credulity it begins to become apparent that his own writings afford some of the best examples of the kind of intellectual confusion which lies at the heart of the Freudian enterprise.

In one section of Terrors and Experts Phillips recounts how he treated a young boy who came to him after suffering from severe eczema. Unsceptically accepting the classic Freudian view that unexplained symptoms should be treated as a hieropglyph of the unconscious, and that all symptoms are "overdetermined", Phillips offers at least four highly specific psychological interpretations of the boy's eczema as a bodily manifestation of family conflict. He strongly implies that this approach has assisted the boy's recovery. Yet his own account makes it quite clear that the boy had almost recovered from his eczema (which can be a purely organic and hereditary condition) before he even saw a psychoanalyst and that his recovery had coincided with a two-week period of hospital treatment.

Although Phillips explicitly claims that his therapy has "consolidated" this treatment, no evidence is offered, or could conceivably be presented, that his intricate and improbable psychoanalytic interpretations have had any therapeutic effect at all. What may also be observed is that the interpretations he offers of the boy's illness might, with a few adaptations, be applied to a wide variety of symptoms, from recurrent influenza to chronic snoring. On the evidence of this case history at least Frank Cioffi's observation that "Freud stood to his patients'symptoms. . . more as a painter to his pigments than a sleuth to his traces of mud and cigar ash" might well be applied to Adam Phillips.

To cite but one (other) instance, we might well consider Phillips"s discussion of depression in On Flirtation. Here he relays a proposal made by Julia Kristeva for dealing with patients who are severely depressed. According to Phillips what Kristeva proposes is that "vowels, consonants or syllables may be extracted from the signifying sequence" of the depressed patient's language and construed by the analyst in the service of new meanings."

The bizarre proposal that the psychoanalyst may help the depressed patient to a knowledge of their true feelings by breaking their speech down into syllables or sound units and then creating entirely new meanings out of these components turns psychoanalysis into a kind of higher anagram-making. What is shocking is the implication that such "therapy" is to be carried out at the expense (in all senses of that word) of emotionally vulnerable people, who may very well be suicidally depressed.

What is perhaps even more shocking is that Phillips relays this proposal without criticising it in any way. He then goes on to describe the book in which it is made as "one of the very best psychoanalytic books on depression and melancholia". That such a judgement should be passed at all is disturbing. That the psychoanalyst who makes such a judgement should be widely regarded as a profound and sceptical writer and praised as "one of our greatest contemporary psychoanalytic thinkers" is a depressing sign of just how deep is the intellectual trouble we are in.

Richard Webster is the author of Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis (HarperCollins, 1995).

On Flirtation

Author - Adam Phillips
ISBN - 0 571 17490 6
Publisher - Faber and Faber
Price - £7.99
Pages - 226

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