Wednesday, January 1, 1997

Q&A Adam Phillips: A Post-Freudian Commonwealth of Quotes


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review
(Date Approximate)

   The banal is a cover story. . .
   Psychoanalysis, like religion and medicine, turns panic into meaning. . .
   If we banned the word love it would be interesting to see what we found ourselves saying (and doing) to each other. . .
   A phobia, like a psychoanalytic theory, is a story about where the wild things are. . .

HB: There's such a stripping down of Freudianism in "Terrors and Experts," the reader can wonder, what's left? What makes your work Freudian at all?

AP: I'm certainly a believer in, take seriously, transference, dream work, repression, all the defenses, certainly the centrality of sexual desire, so no, I would think of my work as very Freudian. But that doesn't imply obeisance to Freud. My interest in Freud is to have something I can use to make something of my own with.

HB: It reads as though there's a cleansing process at work, and what's left in the end is a belief in free association and a commitment to a search for meaning. Those are your boundary conditions. The unconscious, for example, is less a repository of motifs to be uncovered than an endpoint, a limit to knowledge, as in, "With the unconscious you never know where you are." You speak of your work as post-Freudianizing Freud. For example, you emphasize undecidability, transgression, gaps -- the litany of postmodern virtues.

AP: For me, these are straightforward Freudian. I've come to understand everything entirely through psychoanalysis. What one can make sense of? What is inside oneself that prevents sense-making? Those seem to me to be fundamentally Freudian ideas, and that's what I like about him.

HB: In "Terrors and Experts" you are placing this post-Freudian Freud alongside the better known, the Enlightenment, Freud.

AP: That's absolutely right.

HB: Which is your Freud?

AP: The Freud I like is the conversation between the two Freuds.

HB: You move between one and the other. It's not clear where your loyalty lies.

AP: Nor to me.

HB: The style of many Freudian writers is dense, overdetermined, systematic. You go in the opposite direction. What stands out is your gift for aphorism, for the fragment.

AP: I do love aphorisms. I don't try and write them; they turn up. The aphorism contains a kind of inner delirium. It arrests the flow of what's been written. I don't think people come away from my books knowing, for example, what my theory of worrying might be. A sentence strikes you, you go away humming a tune. I don't want to have theories.

HB: You point out the ways in which Freudianism today is blending into modes of discourse it resembles more than science. This can seem like evasive action against its attackers or a form of camouflage.

AP: All the controversy about Freud is irrelevant. I really think psychoanalysis is only for the people who like it. It's manifestly not scientific. And psychoanalysis should be attacked. For its first years, it was a cult. You couldn't find out about it unless you were in the game. Suddenly the game is open, and people are finding out whether they like it or not.

But the attempt to discredit Freud is like trying to discredit Wordsworth or Wallace Stevens. People should read Freud and see whether there's anything in it for them, rather than trying to find things that will finally disprove it.

HB: You say the analyst is likely to use a word like "depression," the patient more likely to use a word like "sad." It brings to mind something E.L. Doctorow wrote: "We have in such concepts as 'complex,' sublimation,' repression,' identity crisis,' object relations,' borderline,' and so on, the interchangeable parts of all of us. In this sense modern psychology is the industrialization of storytelling."

AP: Absolutely. I agree with that. The trouble with having special languages is that they create a mystique of authority.

HB: Then, why would someone come to you? Because they've heard you are a good conversationalist?

AP: That's exactly why they come to me. I'd rather call myself a conversationalist, that's it. The name "psychoanalytic" is no longer an honorific. It brings so much baggage that it's a real problem. I'm selling a special kind of conversation.

HB: In the United States, as opposed, perhaps, to England, where you work, it would seem the dominant form of therapy is chemical, which is more about the exchange of neurotransmitters than the exchange of meanings.

AP: Fixing the machine.

HB: And we have the trauma theorists. Trauma, which was part of Freud's thinking, now takes up the whole screen, edging everything else out.

AP: I value Freud because he is committed to personal history and to meaning. These seem to be the central and crucial factors. I also value Freud because he sees, and maybe post-Freudians see it too, that, in a sense, prioritizing trauma is itself a trauma. The problem with putting trauma at the center of the theory is you put a fixity at the center of the theory, and it's as though you've created a specialization. I would prefer less generalization in psychoanalysis and more specific detailed personal histories. And that would mean that the whole slew of psychoanalytic theory would be redundant. If you create syndromes, you risk creating a language which imprisons you in specific kinds of life story -- survivors, etc.. These syndromes invite you to join a club, the club of incest survivors, or whatever it might be.

HB: Freudianism was not necessarily different; though their language was more complex, those undergoing psychoanalysis were also a club.

AP: I think that's right. Learning to be a psychoanalyst is learning to speak a language. And becoming a patient is also learning to speak a language. What we need is ways of talking about the languages we learn. There's a spectrum. At one end there's indoctrination, at the other end, acquiring a language that you can make something of your own with.

HB: Wouldn't you say that's true of any good conversation?

AP: Exactly. Someone gives you an idiom out of which you make your own idiom. A good conversation would be the model. But the psychoanalytic conversation is a specific variety. It's the kind of conversation you can't quite have with your friends, your family.

HB: Does the conversation take place differently in England than here?

AP: I think psychobabble is a terrible catastrophe here.

HB: Less so in England?

AP: Yes, but it's going that way. It's a matter of time. As more people have unimaginative therapy more people are going to speak psychobabble. It's emotionally impoverished. The vocabulary is so limited. That's why we should be reading novels, poems, history, rather than psychoanalysis. We should read psychoanalysis as well, but if we read just psychoanalysis we are in deep trouble, vocabulary-wise

HB: There's the possibility of a tremendous stratification. Psychoanalysis will be for the people who want it and, as you add parenthetically, can afford it. For the others, there are chemicals .

AP: That's terrible. Psychoanalysis should be free. I've worked in the health service in England for twenty years. One of the great things about that health service -- it no longer really exists -- was that any child and many adults could have psychotherapy for free. Insofar as psychoanalysis becomes a province of the middle class it will be corrupted. It should be available

HB: You allude to the occult often in your work. You describe Ferenczi, For example, attending a seance, and Freud holding back. What is the relationship between the two worlds? Is repetition compulsion, for instance, a psychoanalytic way of talking about what simply used to be called a curse?

AP: Yes, absolutely.

HB: And you talk about phobias as a psychoanalytic way of referring to what used to be called possession. Is it a case of the age-old superstitions being outfitted with a new vocabulary?

AP: That's right. Inevitably, there's an overlap and an evolution of vocabularies.

The reason I'm interested in occult phenomenon is it's a way of describing whatever doesn't fit into our patterns of intelligibility. There's a whole range of experience that is fundamentally unintelligible though it absolutely preoccupies us and we're forever trying to find ways of talking about it. At one end, the ways we have of talking that really are spurious and woolly. At the other end, we're over-scientized. It's very difficult to find a good language for what could loosely be described as mystical experience.

HB: You allude to paradox all the time. Why do you find it so interesting?

AP: Because it defies the illusion of alternatives. The problem of binary structures of thought is they limit the field; they limit the range of ways of thinking. One of the things we do in psychoanalysis is show people the paradoxical nature of their acts, the fact that they're always doing at least two things at once, and that to call these acts contradictory oversimplifies the conversation. In any one thing that we're doing, an awful lot of people -- an awful lot of different aspects of ourselves -- participate.

If we create impossible choices, we create impossible lives. If the choice is either you love someone or you hate someone, you're in deep trouble if you want to have a relationship. You don't get pure state feeling, you always get a mixture. Paradox is a semi-impressive word, an abstract word, to describe the mixture, the mixture and irony. The multiplicity of internal voices means you are deeply ironized. There's likely to be an ironic point of view in there somewhere.

HB: So for you, paradox is not something to avoid but to court, as when Neils Bohr, the physicist, said, "No progress without paradox."

AP: It's the opposite of scapegoating. Once we acknowledge there aren't bad people over there and good people over here but actually we're all in one way or another implicated in all these schemes that we're trying to get rid of, it's very different. In a world of paradox, there can be no scapegoats because we couldn't locate all the bad things in one person or one group.

HB: If we lived in a world of paradox only, wouldn't we we be completely paralyzed?

AP: I'm not sure. Having grown up in a world of contradiction, as we have, one could end up feeling paralyzed rather than inspired by paradox. Actually, paradox can be empowering, because it allows one's own complexity.

HB: You write, "It is, indeed, dismaying how quickly psychoanalysis has become the science of he sensible passions, as though the aim of psychoanalysis was to make people more intelligible to themselves rather than to realize how strange they are." But how would we ever be anything if we were forever suspended between possibilities?

AP: You can't help but act. We're making choice all the time. What interests me about psychoanalysis is it's about how complicated we can let ourselves be and at the same time have the kind of lives we want. And find ways of thinking out what a good life is. That's why, for me, psychoanalysis is really beginning. It's not remotely all over. I think we are just -- I am just -- getting a glimpse of internal multiplicity, of how there are ways we evolve to anesthetize ourselves, how certain voices or sounds or rhythms are muffled, modularized or disavowed.

HB: It seems your Freud is haunted by Sartre, your psychoanalysis haunted by existential psychology.

AP: For me, Sartre's critique of psychoanalysis is still very interesting. At its worse, the idea of the unconscious is the worst version of bad faith, the perfect alibi for never taking responsibility. If somebody comes to me and says, I can do anything I want, I want to talk to them about their parents. On the other hand, If somebody comes to me and says, my parents have ruined my life, I want to talk to them about the anxiety they have about making choices. You need both perspectives.

HB: One of my favorite of your essays is "Psychoanalysis and Idolatry" (in "On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored".) You portray Freud's inner circle, largely Jewish, meeting in his room filled with masks, icons, idols of all kinds, and you say that to be a Jew was not just a question of belief; it was at least as much a question of disbelief, of the overturning of idols and beliefs, including Jewish beliefs. You depict Freud in this respect as absolutely Jewish.

AP: That's absolutely right. And for me, it's a way of discovering a kind of trans-generational affiliation, because to be a British Jew is a strange thing. We're more assimilated. There's little Jewish-English culture to provides a context I want to affiliate to.

HB: And so you write about Philip Roth and Karl Kraus, as well as Isaac Rosenberg.

AP: One of the things I'm working out in the books is about being a British Jew. Kitaj and Lucien Freud -- those painters give me something of what I am looking for.

HB: You talk about common-sense analysts, like Anna Freud and Erich Fromm, and bizarre analysts like Lacan. Is your work a sort of domesticated Lacan?

AP: If you are interested in psychoanalysis, I can't see how you can avoid being interested in Lacan, who I think is fabulous. I don't like a lot of what he's given birth to, but the writing is astonishingly interesting. He's definitely an important figure for me. I've read him not rabbinically but with a lot of pleasure.

In a way, Lacan would like to think that everybody after him could only domesticate him. I feel consciously what I'm doing is using the bits and pieces of anybody, and I mean anybody, who comes along, to say whatever it is I find myself wanting to say. And the reason I have so many quotes in "Terrors and Experts" is because other people have said great things.

HB: More than your other books, "Terrors and Experts" is a book of quotations, yours and others. You show yourself to be quite a connoisseur of quotes.

AP: I am. I love quotes, and the way in which they can be in circulation. The end of "Mr. Sammler's Planet" someone, maybe Sammler, says, good things have to be said, have a heart. I feel that. I love it when people say good things, myself included, and I want them to be in circulation. That's part of my project, too.

HB: In your essay on Karl Kraus (in "On Flirtation") , Kraus says all that's left to us is quotation; we are each other's thoughts. How utterly contemporary that sounds. But Kraus feels it as an erosion of individuality, the result of mass media -- in his day, newspapers. It's not something he applauds.

AP: There are senses in which I would like the erosion of individuality. Certain aspects of self are important, other aspects circumstantial. An overprotective version of the self, the idea of the self as private property or as virgin territory, is a problem in psychoanalysis: What is one protecting oneself from? Why should one need to guard oneself in that way? If guarding oneself is a compulsion, or an unexamined assumption, that seems to me to be worth investigating or redescribing.

I think we should steal each other's ideas. I don't mind if anybody appropriates my ideas. At its best, there would be a commonwealth of good sentences.

HB: You quote Wordsworth, from "The Prelude," on the primacy of childhood:

Our simple childhood sits upon a throne
That hath more power than all the elements.

In Freudianism, as in most forms of psychology, an ounce of childhood is worth a ton of adulthood. Why?

AP: In his great book, "Centuries of Childhood," Philip Aries points out that childhood was invented in the 17th century. We live, today, in a cult of the child, and that's very interesting because it says something about an anxiety about adulthood. Obviously, ideas about childhood are inventions of adults; children are constructed by adults. All our fears about childhood are questions about what kind of adult you want to produce. They are fundamentally conflicts about adulthood.

HB: Freudianism is under fire from so many sides -- from the computer model of the mind, the bio-chemical model, the trauma theorists, Hobson's dream theory. It's an ambush.

AP: This is good. I really think we should celebrate this. People should be coming at it from every points of view. And then we can see what it looks like afterwards. After, say, a neuro-biologist has done psychoanalysis, what does it look like? Do we end up thinking it's a total waste of time?

For me, psychoanalysis, like Freud, is inexhaustible. I may tire of it, who knows, but it's more like reading Shakespeare than like reading some fad. It's literature. Psychoanalysts shouldn't be trying to placate all these scientists. It's silly; it's not a religion, it's not a political party; it's not something you defend like that. Psychoanalysis is not that important. It's important if you like it, but it doesn't matter if it passes. Things do pass. When people find -- when I find -- a better story, that will be fine. It wouldn't matter to me if Freud is disproved.

HB: If Freud is like Shakespeare, in what sense can he be disproved?

AP: Exactly. The question, when one goes on reading this stuff, is does it give one more life? It still does for me. I'll go on reading Freud.

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