The End of Escapism and the Beginning of Play

Auden, The Pill, Eros vs. Thanatos, Marcuse, 1968, Drugs, George W. Bush, Norman O. Brown, Erich Fromm, R.D. Laing, Authenticity, Dorothy Dinnerstein, Jeffrey Masson, Janet Malcolm, Vladimir Nabokov, Michel Foucault, Harold Bloom, Psychoanalysis, Melanie Klein, D. W. Winnicott, William James, Narcissicism, Walt Whitman, Deleuze and Guattari
by Benjamin Kunkel
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

The End of Escapism and the Beginning of Play

Benjamin Kunkel
21 Snaps


A  friend of mine, born, like me, in the Me Decade, once said, “I was raised a Freudian from birth.” Never mind the suburban gothic features of his particular case, or what exactly my friend meant by this exaggeration. (The Frankfurt School famously claimed that in psychoanalysis only the exaggerations were true.) In a sense what he said goes for all of us. As Auden wrote in 1939, in his elegy for Sigmund Freud:

If often he was wrong and at times absurd

To us he is no more a person

Now but a whole climate of opinion

But in Auden’s day that was still a microclimate, confined to the avant-garde and the school-wise elite at a time when to most people the shock therapy of modernism still seemed more of a shock than a therapy, and when only a tiny portion of the public had had its adolescence extended in the form of a college education. It happened, in the postwar years, and especially in America, that the mass ascendancy of Freud and his followers coincided with the first era of mass higher education. At the same time the modernist culture being enshrined in universities throughout the fifties and sixties tended to promote unsystematic psychological research on oneself, such as Woolf and Proust and Yeats had carried out. And of course it didn’t hurt that the undoing of hang-ups, otherwise known as inhibitions, had gained a new plausibility with the advent of the Pill. Make love not war was a cruder choice than Freud would have proposed, but it was also a popularization, whether people knew it or not, of his late metapsychology, which pits a love instinct—Eros—against Thanatos, the death-and-destruction drive, in a permanent contest for our energies. Love or war: The idea, above all in Herbert Marcuse’s Marxist update of Freud, was that you had no choice but to make one or the other, and that a society like the United States, with energy to spare, was bound to produce an awful lot of surplus pain or pleasure.

If you’re pushing thirty or not too far past, your parents were likely coming of age during this heyday of pop and academic Freudianism, and they didn’t need to be lefties or swingers to inhale the climate. Sure, the counterculture was therapeutically-minded, with its ideological sponsorship by Freudians like Marcuse and Erich Fromm and Norman O. Brown, its paperback copies of sex-prophets Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence, its slogans—in Paris, in 1968—like It is forbidden to forbid, and its use of the free-associative drugs par excellence, weed and acid, the latter having enjoyed a long romance among accredited psychiatrists. But the triumph of a psychoanalytic cast of mind was really confirmed when everyone began impugning everyone else’s motives in loosely clinical terms. For years there had been movies like Psycho and All about Eve with conclusions every bit as patly psychoanalytic as Jim Morrison’s yelling, in “The End,” “Father I want to kill you / Mother I want to—” (the incest taboo made him break off screaming). By the end of the sixties the kids condemning their parents’ more or less sadomasochistic repression were routinely accused of acting out a more or less Oedipal rage; and it may be that the psychopathologizing of everyday life was finally crowned when the conservative philosopher Raymond Aron dismissed the Paris student strike as so much “psychodrama.” At home or in the streets, everyone was also on the couch.

And so we still are, kind of. It’s been suggested that George W. Bush never received mom’s unconditional approval and went to finish up dad’s job in Iraq in order finally to emerge—no one dares use the term, but the thought is there—as the Oedipal victor. By the same token, antiwar protesters are characterized in terms of “resentment, ingrown anger, and self-hate.” Meanwhile, behind closed doors, the best way to escalate a love spat or an intergenerational squabble remains to start trading diagnoses of mental illness. At our most aggressive we talk about other people as if they had compulsions and defenses but never reasons; at our most abject this is how we feel about ourselves. A few years ago Emily Fox Gordon wrote an eloquently ambivalent memoir of her decades in therapy, Mockingbird Years, in which she described leaving for the last time the office of her last therapist only to find herself “in a culture that has become saturated with therapy, in a world that has become a hospital.” That may be another of those exaggerations. Still, our universal suspicion of motives; our conviction that sexuality pervades us through and through; our sense that the child really is father to the man—but with his mother; the thumbnail case studies we can make of our friends and enemies; our familiarity with epithets like obsessive, repressed, defensive, neurotic, paranoid, anal, narcissistic; our elaborate cultures of self-help and New Age, whether ironized or in earnest—these are Freud’s legacy, and they run deep. Once Freud had come up with psychoanalysis, dreams were the first objects of his attention. Almost no one still subscribes to his account of them as, invariably, a species of wish fulfillment. Yet Freud’s intuition that dreams possessed a kind of unassailable innocence appears to have been spot-on. Dreams must be the only experiences we have anymore in which we never ask ourselves therapists’ questions about what we’re doing and why.

All of this is in spite of the substantial eclipse of Freudianism. For seventy years or so, psychoanalysis, which believes so much in the good of talking, was one of the most exciting conversations going. Then—the risk of any excited revelatory conversation—it had gone on too long. You know the feeling: New ideas are shared into strength; even their qualifications enlarge them; you’re talking fluently; you coordinate your understandings; and then the strong ideas have become too strong. What felt like explanation now sounds like monomania and tautology. It’s easy to find samples of such vacancy and hubris in the prose of some of the most well known postwar psychoanalytic writers. Freud had wondered in Civilization and Its Discontents whether some civilizations, or some eras, might deserve the term neurotic. But the circumspect doctor surely didn’t mean to license the dithyrambling diagnosis of Norman O. Brown in 1967: “Reason is power; powerful arguments; power-politics; Realpolitik; reality-principle. Love [by contrast] comes empty-handed… the eternal proletariat; like Cordelia, bringing Nothing.” To which one can only reply, “Whatever.” And in Erich Fromm’s 1957 Art of Loving, a book that still does a good business (despite its lack of sex tips), we are helpfully informed that the Aristotelian logic of the West “led to dogma and science, to the Catholic Church, and to the discovery of atomic energy.”

The danger of any talking cure is that should it succeed you will become garrulous, and think yourself worth quoting on any subject. Psychoanalysis in its popular triumph had become a parody of the successful treatment. And Fromm and Brown’s pronouncements were just the public-minded version of a familiar vice of actual analysis: the tendency to place excessive demands on the patient. R. D. Laing, a brilliant existential psychiatrist who eventually mistook himself for a guru, made authenticity—in the 1960s “the first and only virtue,” according to Emily Fox Gordon—sound virtually impossible: “[I]t is the simplest and most difficult thing in the world for one person, genuinely being his or her self, to give, in fact and not just in appearance, another person, realized in his or her own being by the giver, a cup of tea, really, and not in appearance.” Of course the example would have to be of a tea ceremony, since Zen is the unstated ideal and the source of Laing’s paradox: total simplicity via total self-consciousness, the hopeless recommendation of 10,000 wisdom-of-the-East manuals.

In his late essay “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” Freud had expressed grave doubts about, not the truth, but the efficacy of analysis. His theory implied, after all, that people became themselves before they could know what they were doing. It would be very difficult to talk someone out of her earliest passions. But here was psychoanalysis joining with Mao and Timothy Leary in affirming that people and civilizations could be remade from the ground up. If only the whole culture could go back before Aristotle or Christ, or the individual could go back before the birth trauma (as some versions of analysis maintained), we might come out all right. Psychoanalysis at its best vacillates between comforting and challenging us. For all his desire to help, Freud was also proud to “agitate the sleep of mankind.” But psychoanalysis could become too purely a matter of agitation. In The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976)—a grim and fairly persuasive brief for “the necessity for shared early parenting,” without which both sexes would continue, so the argument ran, to seem half-human, and not the same half either—Dorothy Dinnerstein wrote: “To the extent that it succeeds in communicating its point at all, this book will necessarily enrage the reader.” In this way the apparent strength of psychoanalytic thought became its weakness. Psychoanalysis had come to believe it could discover—and change—more about us than it could. People were asked to utterly transform themselves, or the world, or both. They were begged at last to become healthy, honest, happy, good, real, and free: “the tyrannical demand that one enjoy oneself,” Adam Phillips calls it, “—the most punitive demand of all.”

Well, pride comes before a fall. In 1984 The Village Voice reported that Freud’s shortcomings were the talk of every cocktail party. One suspects another exaggeration. Yet the revelations and accusations were indeed piling up. Jeffrey Masson claimed that Freud had concealed the rampant child abuse of his day with his theory of the libidinous child, while other writers portrayed Freud as a coke addict, and one researcher went so far as to suggest the good doctor had cheated on his wife with his sister-in-law and plotted to kill his best friend. (It seems that of these charges only the one about cocaine has any merit.) In Janet Malcolm’s In the Freud Archives (1983), a dryly wicked and very entertaining account of some of these controversies, K. R. Eissler, secretary of the archives and Freud’s indefatigable defender, said, “Freud hurt us—he hurt all of us deeply by his findings—and now there is an attempt to get back at him through denigration of his character.” Yet even if it was possible to dismiss the attempts thus as defense mechanisms or reaction formations, Freud the culture hero had been tarnished. Most analysts and therapists could plead truthfully that they weren’t strict Freudians, but their services remained easy as ever to criticize as expensive and unavailing, while their intellectual foundations, Freudian and otherwise, had come under increased attack.

Psychoanalysis has always been made fun of—the application of Greek myths to one’s private parts, Nabokov called it. Starting in the late seventies it faced more formidable if less witty debunkings. Cognitive therapists had no use for the notion of a dynamic unconscious. Philosophers of mind thought psychoanalysis made unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific claims in a hopelessly imprecise language. Foucault influentially argued that the saturation of the human subject by sexuality was something created, not discovered, by the discourse of sexuality. (Creation, not discovery, will be Adam Phillips’s emphasis too.) And anyone caring to peddle a reductively neurobiological explanation of human behavior soon had better drugs with which to shore up his position. Psychoanalysis, it seems, had been too often wrong, too many times absurd. For more than twenty years now it has been, as an intellectual operation, mostly a rear-guard action. Drugs are cheaper than talk therapy anyway, something not lost on HMOs. And the spilt religion of New Age and self-help, whose place in our culture was prepared for by psychoanalysis, now includes psychoanalysis as at best an antique sideshow. Poor Freud, when even his champions belittle him—as the writer, in Harold Bloom’s phrase, of “essentially proseified Shakespeare.”

In these circumstances it’s no wonder that the Freud whom Adam Phillips wants to inspire us with is a “post-Freudian Freud.” A British analyst and a prolific essayist, Phillips is, at forty-eight, the most prominent heir to the great if lately insecure intellectual tradition that is pychoanalysis. Penguin Books has put him in charge of editing its new translations of the twenty-four-volume Standard Edition of Freud, while he has emerged in his own writings as our equivalent (for all that he exceeds them as a stylist and an intellect) to earlier popularizer/revisionists like Fromm and Brown. Phillips has produced ten books over the past fifteen years, including an introduction to D. W. Winnicott; a set of essays wonderfully entitled On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored (1993); a winsome dressing-down of psychoanalytic pretensions; a collection of aphorisms strewn around the subject of monogamy; a book-length essay on the theme of curiosity; another on the theme of escape; a study—a diptych—of Darwin and Freud; and some other books made up in whole or in part by literary criticism. These have established him as one of the best living psychoanalytic writers and would probably have done so even if he had more competition. Phillips owns a remarkable style: clever and smoothly epigrammatic, tolerant and curious, and in command, with a light touch, of a huge body of reference. His briskness and good nature may come as a surprise if you imagine psychoanalysis still speaking with a heavy Viennese accent. And while Phillips has read deeply in his tradition, his attitude toward psychoanalysis is a distinctly contemporary one; he seems committed to it without quite believing, fully immersed while standing off to one side. A reader of the French poststructuralists—as well as, to be fair, many other thinkers besides—he uses psychoanalytic language in something like the way Derrida would use a word after having struck it through, as if to say that this, the wrong word, was also the only one. Psychoanalysis, this would be then.



Our time sometimes seems characterized in particular by the tenacity of discredited things. Sometimes life at large, win or lose, feels like voting the Democratic ticket. Do we believe anymore in marriage and the family, or, on the other hand, in sexual liberation and self-discovery? How about in the wholesomeness of community or the lonely courage of the individual? In advertising or conspiracy theories? In technocrats or guerillas? In saints or libertines? In the genius of the studio system or that of the avant-garde? In the “Washington consensus” or the chances for social democracy? A post-Freudian Freudianism belongs to the crowd of unkillable ghosts, of hearty undead. We read all books semi-psychoanalytically but don’t read so many psychoanalytic books; we explain ourselves in Freudian terms that we mentally strike through as we use them. In his latest book, Equals (2002), Phillips writes of “what used to be called making the unconscious conscious… so-called mental health… what was once called madness… so-called gratification… so-called human nature… what would once have been called [the] imagination… what we call our minds….” Yet the reader referring herself to Phillips’s sophisticated books, consulting him as a state-of-the-art “so-called mental health expert,” will probably have come, callowly enough, with an ancient question in mind: How should I live my life, my so-called life?

Phillips’s answer, always of a piece with his reluctance to answer, began to appear in his first book, on D. W. Winnicott. But maybe the place to start is really with Melanie Klein, whom Phillips rarely mentions, and then usually to express reservations over her gloominess and moralism.

Melanie Klein was, if you want to be clever, the father of British psychoanalysis. Viennese and Jewish like Freud, she moved to England in 1926, and her work, marked by some of Freud’s sternness and even darker in its vision, dominated the British Psychoanalytic Society for many years. Whereas Freud had to reconstruct the child from the neurotic adult on the couch, Klein was a pioneer in the analysis of actual children, a path she would be followed in by Winnicott and, two generations later, Phillips. Klein’s work laid the foundations for what’s known, somewhat creepily, as object-relations theory, seeing as the objects in question are other people—especially mom, known to the infant as the one with the breasts. A textbook on object relations, otherwise staid and simile-averse, will tell you that Klein’s picture of infancy is “like the world that Kafka described,” full of scary confusion. Klein imagines us as cannibals in the crib (wishing to devour mom along with her milk) giving way at times to mewling sadists (wanting to punish mom for her failure to feed us on demand). For Klein, we mature into guilt: the will to make reparation for these violent fantasies. The depressive position is what she calls this onset of human decency. Psychoanalysis should be wary, Phillips cautions, of becoming “a covert moral injunction.” When it does become one, “try to be good,” as he says, is the Kleinian commandment.

Fatherly love, our struck-through sense still has it, is a matter of judgment, something to be won. Whereas mother love is meant to be solacingly helpless, warmth without end. Donald W. Winnicott’s place in the British tradition is as mother to Klein’s father: a sunny encourager. Winnicott, as Phillips points out, in all his writings from the thirties through the sixties paid almost no attention to dad. His concern was with what he called “the good-enough mother,” above all with the “holding-environment” she provided. Winnicott hoped that from the child’s feeling of safety she would develop the courage for spontaneity; for him creativity rather than responsibility was the index and incentive to growth. As the poststructuralists would do later on, Winnicott made a great virtue of playfulness. Phillips tips his hand in describing his values: “[T]he capacity to play was integral to the developmental process and not the capacity… which had defined the psychoanalytic project, the capacity to know oneself.” In his genial nonconfrontational way, Winnicott established a view brightly in contrast to Klein’s depressive position. Moreover Phillips sees Winnicott as an exemplar as well as an advocate of creativity, someone who refused “to become systematically coherent at the expense of his own inventiveness.”

The appeal of Winnicott, and of Phillips’s Winnicott, is obvious. They sound like fun. For Winnicott the infant was, in Phillips’s words, “born an artist and a hedonist,” and with luck would grow up gratifying these dispositions. Anyone in therapy or analysis wants to change his life. Who wouldn’t rather feel that this change will be more like becoming an artist than merely recovering your health? And it may be that inspiration is a more effective therapeutic model than convalescence, although, as Phillips would no doubt remind us, it depends what effects you’re looking for. Phillips has taken over from the philosopher Richard Rorty the notion that all of our stories and truths are a matter of redescription—our in-both-senses partial versions of somebody else’s, or some earlier self’s, description of things. Here is his own version of Freud, a fun Freud, in On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored:

With the invention of psychoanalysis—or rather, with the discovery of what he called the unconscious—Freud glimpsed a daunting prospect: a profession of improvisers. And in the ethos of Freud and his followers, improvisation was closer to the inspiration of artists than to the discipline of scientists.

The last sentence is a whopper of a redescription; throughout his career Freud cast his lot with natural science. And however much Freud revised and queried his own thinking, he always maintained that the unconscious did exist, real as a rock. Yet here is Phillips in Terrors and Experts (1995), a critique of his profession’s would-be expertise, wondering only whether the idea of the unconscious might be, as William James would put it, good in the way of belief: “So instead of asking, Is there an unconscious?, we might ask, In what sense are our lives better if we live as though there is one?” If you’ve read Rorty, or James on pragmatism, you’ll recognize the maneuver: the old epistemological question of “What is true and how do I know it?” is replaced by “What do I want and how can I get it?” As Phillips argues in The Beast and the Nursery, this question enjoys the merit of its regressiveness, of being the same one the infant asks. (Klein, however, imagined infants as being more like old-fashioned philosophers; she supposed a “epistomophiliac” instinct.)


Phillips has written on a truly impressive variety of subjects; he knows all about not only Lacan and Ferenczi, but Houdini and Svengali, Emily Dickinson and Fredrick Seidel. Some of Phillips’s best essays deal with phenomena, like boredom and flirtation, you might have thought beneath psychoanalytic notice. Yet no matter what its theme, a Phillips essay takes place in his sustained polemic against the old hubris of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis has been a tyrannical, judgmental killjoy, dour enough even when advocating pleasure; it has posed as omniscient, expert, authoritative. It should instead be a mutual improvisation, a two-party democracy; the relevant credentials are only curiosity and creativity. In Promises, Promises (2001), a collection of literary criticism, Phillips offers a sort of credo:

The version of psychoanalysis I want to promote in this miscellaneous book is more committed to happiness and inspiration (and the miscellaneous) than to self-knowledge, rigorous thinking, or the Depths of Being…. It assumes that there is nothing wrong with anyone, that no one is ‘ill’, but that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have got…. Such Panglossian values are proffered (and preferred) in reaction to a profession that has become too eagerly complicit with the grim seriousness of the predicaments it has sought to understand….

A call to repeal the arrogance of psychoanalysis at its historical zenith, a proposal for humbler shrinks and less deferential clients—but it isn’t only that. Phillips has also found a way of getting around the skeptics who ask, in their various ways, whether psychoanalysis isn’t just a neat turn-of-the-century diagram nowhere overlapping with reality. Phillips shrugs and smiles: “I read psychoanalysis as poetry, so I don’t have to worry about whether it is true or even useful, but only whether it is haunting or moving or intriguing or amusing.”

The condition of poetry, or of “what used to be called Literature,” is naturally what Phillips aspires to as an essayist. It is also his aspiration on behalf of the shrink and the patient: “The writer, unlike the psychoanalyst”—and unlike, he implies, the deferential client—“is the person who has not been dominated by someone else’s vocabulary.” When Phillips offers vignettes from the consulting room, his attention to the patient’s words resembles literary criticism as a method of extracting significance that, done aright, adds to the store of the undisclosed. In his essay “Worrying and its Discontents” Phillips sits down with an anxious ten-year-old boy:

Intending to say “What are the worries?” I in fact said to him, “What are worries?” Quite naturally puzzled by the question, he thought for a moment, then replied quite triumphantly, “Farts that don’t work,” and blushed. I said, “Yes, some farts are worth keeping.” He grinned and said, “Treasure.”

Quite apart from the pleasure of encountering a discussion of farting in almost any serious book, this is one of Phillips’s best and liveliest moments. The exchange with the boy is Phillips’s sensibility in miniature. Like Winnicott before him, and like Oliver Sacks in a different field, Phillips considers even our maladaptations as a kind of creative achievement. The boy’s worries, which he conceals from his mother, gain him some independence against the over-closeness mom requires. For all of Phillips’s improvisation, there is a classically Freudian interpretation behind his suggestion that some farts are worth keeping. In psychoanalytic terms, shit, while we are being potty-trained, is our gift to our parents, our going when they want us to a form of compliance. But this uneasy intimacy can outlast its context, as if—here is where Phillips comes in—mom persisted in wanting to smell our very thoughts.

The boy is sent to the talking doctor to be cured of his worries; Phillips’s cure is to show him that he doesn’t need curing, that he is allowed to keep some things to himself. Such restorative un-cures are Phillips’s stock-in-trade: He attempts to smuggle a transforming praise into all talk of foibles, afflictions, and vices. It appears to distress him that “[t]he idea of discovering a capacity for satisfying masturbatory experience has never… found a place in psychoanalytic theory.” In The Beast and the Nursery he glosses rage as principle: “Our angers are inarticulate theories of justice.” He likewise puts in a qualified good word, in other books, for humiliation, infidelity, morbidity, and “so-called narcissism.” But just as often as these transvaluations are persuasive, and the thing itself seems changed in being praised, they sound trite, like a suggestion to make lemonade out of lemons. Phillips’s habit of looking on the sweet side would seem to falsify some of the sour experiences he describes. In an essay about phobias, he says, “To be petrified by a pigeon is a way of making it new.” OK, but it is mostly to be petrified, and for the patient to redescribe his fear as a creative private modernism won’t make it go away, and come back as literature.

Yet even this obtuseness derives from Phillips’s special generosity. His best books in particular are projects of appreciation. On Kissing and Terrors and Experts are united in their praise of the way people manage to live outside and beyond analysis, while Promises, Promises celebrates those proud symptoms that are poems and novels. And generosity also seems the key to Phillips’s charming style. He never touches either of what Emily Fox Gordon has identified as “the extremes that have come to characterize psychoanalytic writing—the jargon-clotted private language of the journals and the simple-minded list-form exhortations of the self-help popularizers.” The jargon would sound intellectually superior; the exhortations would sound morally so. Instead Phillips provides a steady supply of epigrams, as if to suggest that if one line won’t do, you might try another. If the effect can be somewhat relentless, even mechanical, undoubtedly some of his sentences are keepers in the ideal aphoristic way: “It is fortunate that pain has made us so inventive,” he writes in Equals, and in Monogamy, “We thrive on disloyalty to ourselves.” (Two more transvaluations: Suffering can be creative, confusion can be how we flourish.) Phillips badly wants to upend us into happiness, and his intelligence and erudition supply the effort with much of that crucial authority he is always so suspicious of. From Winnicott (1988) to Equals  and throughout the books in between, Phillips has cut an odd and striking figure. Bashfully imposing, he promotes his profession through its undoing, always telling us in his own fine words— and, as a critic and an epigraph-addict, in everyone else’s too—how we might come to speak for ourselves, indeed are already doing just that in our eloquent symptoms, dreams, slip-ups, and evasions. He has become the most relied-on and ubiquitous psychoanalytic writer around by suggesting, again and again, that we might not need people like him after all.

But if a great writer is someone whose work becomes richer the better we get to know it, Phillips is so far only good, and increased acquaintance breeds irritation. The impression develops that he is so secure in his talents for aphorism and appreciation, so practiced at being a gadfly to his profession and a breeze of inspiration to the laity, that he has found no need to chase the improvisations he so often flatters. The perspective and even the language of a recent lecture called “Freud?” don’t differ appreciably from those of his early, and later, books: “And the problem is: How have we come to believe that looking up to people is a form of self-cure?” Psychoanalysis, that is, is an argument against idolatry (of morality, of civilization, of imaginary God) that risks becoming idolatrous (of Freud, of the method he founded, of the self-knowledge he commended). Phillips had said as much more than a decade ago in the conclusion to On Kissing: “[T]he one thing psychoanalysis cannot cure, when it works, is belief in psychoanalysis. And that is a problem.” His counsel is always to abandon the fetish and the priests of self-knowledge, and let ourselves go. And this anti-prescriptive prescription is always written in rhetorical handwriting marked by the same flourishes. There is the “so-called” habit and there are the similar wordplays: “proffered (and preferred),” “to the point and beside it,” “exactly and exactingly,” “cues and clues,” etc. There is the weakness for easy paradox: “… since every denial makes possible another kind of acknowledgement (just as each insight is the product of a specific blindness).” And in keeping with Phillips’s fear of handing out dicta, there are qualifications and hesitations of the kind that lead him to admit in a piece called “Against Inhibition,” and somewhat less than rousingly, “So this paper is not exactly or wholeheartedly against inhibition so much as wondering what thinking about inhibition brings us up against.” It could be objected that these are just tics. But the tics assemble a manner—which then becomes mannered, stale. Loyal to himself, Phillips hasn’t thrived as he might have.

It would be one thing—a deep but useless irony—to say that Phillips has become a bit monotonous and predictable in going on about creativity and improvisation. But his case is more interesting than that. Narcissism is often thought of as an escape from relationship with others, but Phillips, whose writing sometimes approaches the majestic tentativeness of his beloved Henry James, has a different sense of it: “My hunch in this essay [on narcissism]—which is a hint because I can’t justify it—is that the kind of psychoanalysis I would prefer, if indeed it is conceivable, would be one in which the language of escapism had disappeared—no longer seemed useful, or relevant, or to the point of our newfound self-descriptions…. All escapist theories need a concept of the real; that is to say they are all, somewhere, essentialist theories.” The note of modesty here is deceptive; Phillips believes that psychoanalysis should proceed by way of hunches and hints, and retire from the justification business. By “escapist theories” he means theories that there can be such a thing as escapism, ending up as narcissism. To call someone an escapist implies you know where—and, by implication, who—she ought to be. This is just the knowledge Phillips wants psychoanalysis to stop pretending to and, more radically, wants people to stop clamoring for. In Houdini’s Box (2001)—a book on the theme of escapism, using the feats of the famous escape-artist for a kind of parable—Phillips says of perverts, whom most of us would call fetishists, that in seeming to know exactly what they like and how they like it, “They are fundamentalists of what they take to be their own nature.” Such fundamentalism amounts to Phillips’s anti-ideal, as it was Lacan’s: the person who harasses his life, and not just his sex life, into a specious coherence, the person proofed against serendipity by believing she knows who she is. The trouble with old-school psychoanalysis, in Phillips’s view, is that it assists people in their narrowness and deprives them of the mystery from which their self-surprising freedoms would emerge.

If I say that Phillips’s implied hero is something like a narcissist without an ego-ideal, and that he is, as a writer, rather narcissistic himself in his predilection for finding the same thing wherever he looks, this shouldn’t be taken as a denunciation. The story of Narcissus still sounds to most people like a bad Greek myth to apply to your private parts, but plenty of analysts, notably Heinz Kohut in the seventies, have insisted on the normality and healthiness of narcissism. And Winnicott suggested that there was a sense in which the self, narcissistic or otherwise, simply couldn’t enter into relations at all: “Although healthy persons communicate and enjoy communicating, the other fact is equally true, that each individual is an isolate, permanently non-communicating, permanently unknown, in fact unfound” (his italics). Winnicott, no postmodernist, was guileless enough to refer to this ineffable central entity, this holy ghost, as the True Self (his capitalization), and it seems to me that whether Phillips is quoting and discussing the paraphrase-eluding John Ashbery or the worry-withholding ten-year-old, concern for the sanctity of this True Self is the true self of his own writing. But for him the true self isn’t a castle-keep; it’s a fugitive on the run. The way to escape violation and possession by other people’s descriptions of you, and your own, is to stay on the move. It therefore helps in being true to your true self to be as wary of “truth” as possible. Richard Rorty will drive your
getaway car.

Phillips’s extended treatment of this theme comes in Houdini’s Box, but there something strange happens. The book is hard to figure out and, in that sense, more fascinating than most of what he has written lately. It closes with a lovely portrait of Emily Dickinson as a runaway who never left home, Phillips quoting with approval Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s description of the poet as “much too enigmatical for me to solve in an hour’s interview.” Presumably that would go for the analyst’s fifty minutes too. As usual Phillips is sticking up for the creative evasion. But the ambiguous heart of Houdini’s Box is the story, interleaved with accounts of Houdini’s fantastic escapes, of Phillips’s sessions with an intelligent middle-aged womanizer. The guy—educated, funny, poetic: like Phillips himself—has come seeking treatment for his not unheard-of habit of losing interest in a woman the moment her shared interest is secured. In search of the new thing the man does the same thing every time. He is an erotic Houdini, all his ingenuity goes toward an always identical result. Phillips finds that the OED can tell us a thing or two about repetition compulsion: a stunt isn’t only “a performance, a feat, an event, but also ‘a check in growth… a state of arrested development.’” Now, Phillips’s client is a smart and introspective person—meaning, he has fed his problems with his intelligence and made them difficult to outwit. Luckily he has Phillips to talk to. Then again, Phillips’s ideas and sensibility conspire against his too agressively telling anybody what he thinks about that person.

One day Phillips loses his cool. His client doesn’t want to acknowledge his therapist’s hinting insights any more than he wants to yield to a woman who has yielded to him. Understandably sick of this, Phillips breaks out of character and tells the man what it is he’s fleeing   from in each new woman:

On this occasion, I just decided to give him a brief lecture. “… This is the experience you’re always trying to evade… the space in which you might find out what you might want… not your real, deep, authentic desires but your inclinations, your whims, your half-chances… that whole repertoire of experiments that you are.… You’re so busy making choices that you never take any risks.”

The praise of experimentation and whimsy are instances of what Phillips says elsewhere. But the tone is something new. It is insistent, faintly pleading, not entirely kind: a lecture. And it seems to indicate more concern for another’s well-being, more imaginative contact with him, than many an abstract ode to improvisation. The result, however, is disappointing. The client terminates the relationship the next day: “And I received nothing else from him; except, that is, the thoughts he has left me with.” The note of melancholy bafflement is rare in Phillips, and promising. It could be he concludes that his stridency was a mistake. He doesn’t say. Yet he may also suspect the patient was actually helped. Sometimes someone arrogates the old-fashioned fatherly role and accuses us of being precisely what we suspect we are, and in order to show them how wrong they were, we go and change.

Usually Phillips has it that recognition scenes like this are fakes, and can only restrict our freedom. His transvaluations all proceed in one direction. He is not inclined to consider, for example, how the good of mutual freedom might serve as a cover story for bad mutual neglect. Or how for someone to be spared a recognition might enable him to persevere in sterile fidelity to whatever is unrecognized in him. Yet sometimes an identification needs to be made in order to be discarded, a conclusion reached in order to be overcome. Should the identification be unflattering or the conclusion unpleasant—well, pain will make us inventive. Houdini’s Box is not Phillips’s most recent book, but it is the most recent to have been conceived as a whole and not made up of separate pieces. This long essay is also Phillips’s most excitingly confused, the one most shadowed by the threat of self-portraiture. Any essayist’s subjects will also be what Kohut, the theorist of narcissism, calls selfobjects, invested with an esteem and significance that belong to the self. But it seems that Phillips may have found particularly charged selfobjects in his stunted stunt-artist and his anonymous Don Juan, even in his Belle of Amherst. And in the onlooking eyes of these figures the intimation can be spied, the secret shared, that Phillips’s own dexterity might have become a sort of straitjacket, that his output may represent a prolific virginity. How has he changed in his celebrations of change? And of all the problems that he knows how to escape, which has he really entered into? Again, a useless irony—except that it applies to so many other lives and works, and is more deeply a logic than an irony. There is something in the beautiful rhetoric (my own favorite too) of freedom, novelty, and creativity that turns those words into the alibis of habit, even confinement.



Terrors and Experts is the book in which Phillips most stirringly defends the varieties of unanalyzed experience against the profession that would explain them away. But there is little terror in it. Another generation of literary-minded psychoanalysts—eagerly complicit, you could say, with the grim predicaments they sought to understand—liked to quote Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and Sartre. Phillips’s touchstones tend to be different and, notably, American: Emerson, Dickinson, William James, John Dewey, Stevens, Ashbery, Rorty. As distinct as these poets and philosophers may be, they resemble one another and are unlike the psychoanalyst in romancing the future much more than the past. America was never a utopia and, outside of the higher tax brackets, doesn’t look like it will become one; but the imaginary America with the portraits of the above-named writers engraved on its currency remains an ideal country for the new birth of inner freedom it continually, optimistically promises. Phillips wants psychoanalysis to become like the dream America. He complains that freedom is a word his colleagues rarely use. And in Equals (another word made romantic by America) he proposes a new clinical situation: “The analyst would position herself as a democrat… would be like a rendezvous for the conflicts entailed by the refusal, or suppression, of conflict.” Yet his own essays are more like actually existing American democracy, with its look of rough consensus—Phillips doesn’t argue much with himself or with anyone in particular—predicated on exclusion.

The American poets Phillips is drawn to are remarkable for the solitude, lived or not, that they prize in their work. Walt Whitman, probably a lifelong virgin and certainly in his poems a reverential onanist (there is an account of satisfying masturbatory experience!), is bard of the dream America, and also very good on the True Self, which he called the “Me myself”:

Apart from the pulling and
hauling stands what I am,

Stands amused, complacent,
compassionating, idle,

Both in and out of the game,
and watching and
wondering at it.

Whitman is famous for his catalogs of other people, but they have a way of becoming an inventory of selfobjects, a populous solipsism. Exhilarating as this is in his poetry, where a common substratum is proclaimed at the level of feeling, it is depressing in the work of a philosopher like Rorty, with his blithe claims that Heidegger and John Dewey are really, at some deep level, saying the same thing, which happens also to be what, in a way, Derrida is saying, all of which turns out to be what he himself, Richard Rorty, is saying, something you can contradict if you want to, but then who’s to judge? The happy conclusion to this conversation depends on the fact that it isn’t one. By the same token, Phillips’s writing sometimes threatens to turn into a psychoanalysis without patients—or without their problems, anyway.

Even the happiest readers of Emersonians in the line from Whitman to Ashbery (I’d include myself) don’t go to those writers for something that, on the other hand, most people do want from therapy: a sense of what their life among other people might ask from them, and give back. And the problem with Phillips’s celebration of play, even with his pediatric orientation, is likewise a deficit of mutuality. Only around the age of seven or eight does it begin to dawn on kids that the human objects they relate to and play with are, just like them, fully equipped subjects on the inside, and this dawning awareness—the noon of which is probably never attained—brings with it a new loneliness and, at the same time, the first intimation that loneliness might not be the only life. Experimentation becomes a moral problem because other people are increasingly our guinea pigs, even if it’s their love or friendship that has volunteered them. Phillips is too keen to avoid moralism to say such a thing. But neither do you get from him any indication of the satisfactions—the moral thrill—of understanding someone or being understood. He seems to think of conceptualization itself, when it comes to other people, as a form of violence. “Tyrannical” is his regular word, and it displays a fear of his own considerable powers.

No doubt there are still frowning, note-taking tyrants among accredited shrinks. But in seeing psychoanalysis and literature as continuous Phillips has made the mistake of confusing clinical etiquette with the practice of writing. No person aspiring to sanity would tolerate Nietzsche or Philip Roth or whatever other ranting genius as her one and only therapist. Yet anyone who reads, reads lots of writers and encounters even the most reckless and bullying of them without feeling coerced. Their fervor helps to induce our own commitments and enthusiasms, whereas the wishy-washy are only boosters of their own vagueness and the educators of no one. A poem or a novel may have no declarative content, but it needs to seem as if it were pressed into being by some sharp apprehension of the truth. And the essayist in particular becomes edgeless and remote if he insulates his work inside scare quotes. To read psychoanalysis as poetry, when this means setting aside the question of truth, weakens not only psychoanalysis but poetry. In poetry and elsewhere the interest of a sentence—“whether it is haunting or moving or intriguing or amusing”—is indissociable from its rapport with truth. A truth may have a more or less restricted context, as an organism, equally absolute while it lasts, has a habitat, but this doesn’t mean that truth is nonexistent any more than it means life is. As long as language is being used, the imputation of truth can never be removed, only more or less clumsily displaced, so that instead of having a debate about what’s truly true, we end up having one about what’s truly haunting, or truly amusing, and so on. Even seemingly non-referential language relies for its effects on a dwindling store of reference.

For writers and psychoanalysts to encumber their work with the occasional inconclusive meta-discussion about the nature of language or the procedures of the talking cure probably can’t be avoided, just as no love affair is without its relationship talks. But there is so much in Adam Phillips of his skeptical epistemology and his tentative analytic etiquette that his writing becomes like one of those relationships where you’re always talking about the relationship. The life of the thing wastes into possibility, as you find yourselves compromising happiness by every arrangement to feel it and sometimes wishing, in the way modern or postmodern people have always done, for the recovery of that alleged primeval naïveté under whose spell desire actually knows what it wants. People become sophisticated (about books or foods or foreign countries, about love) perhaps finally in order to lord it over other people, but at first because they are polymorphously perverse, and want to see what each new pleasure will do for them. Yet our sophistication revenges itself against us, so that our libido or fund of Eros, detached too often from its objects, won’t settle onto anything again, a condition known as boredom, at least before it sheers into despair. The terror is that our freedom and creativity will become their opposites, and that in kicking away obstacles we end up wrestling with empty space. And this is the terror that goes unaddressed—untreated, you might say—by Phillips and, for the most part, by American rhapsodists of freedom.


Phillips is so skillful at turning maladies on their heads that it’s worth responding in kind and thinking about the harrowing clinical condition he seems to have inverted in praising antifoundational skepticism, inner plurality, and the self’s escape from other people’s descriptions. The condition, of course, is schizophrenia. And it happens that one of the great accounts of the logic of schizophrenia was written by an earlier student of Winnicott and so another kind of acolyte of the True Self. R. D. Laing saw schizophrenia in terms of the individual’s increasing domination by a “false-self system.” In The Divided Self (1960) the schizoid person en route to schizophrenia feels that his True Self hardly partakes in what he does, that his words and actions are captives of a false self and fail to manifest his nature. No one can find him in them. So the schizophrenic becomes like some contemporary philosophers in considering words a poor, maybe impossible match for the reality they would express: a skepticism about language and the world that another writer has called “the pathological freedom of schizophrenic thinking.” Yet free-thinking schizoids and schizophrenics, unconstrained by the consensus-seeking of conversation, are far more often catatonic than they are liberated into the wildest varieties of experience by their determination not to identify themselves with what they do. Laing said it well: “If the individual’s behaviour comes to be compulsively alienated from the secret self so that it is given over entirely to compulsive mimicry, impersonating, [and] caricaturing… he may then try to strip himself of all behaviour.” The schizophrenic person, affect-impoverished and increasingly withdrawn, exhibits the fallacy of trading in “What is true?” for “What do I want?”—since the skepticism that did away with the “truth” usually won’t have spared his desire.

Naturally Phillips is not advocating, much less suffering from schizophrenia; and crucial research has been done into a possible neurological basis for the disease in the years since Laing wrote. But the inner desolation he described illustrates something durably true: Other people are the sites of our meaning. Restricting our existence, they also permit it. Their reported and imagined thoughts compound us into feeling we are real. We are sometimes their selfobjects, and we know it, so that their narcissism prevents the completeness of our own, a service we render in return. By our shared attention we incarnate each other’s significance, and mutually deploy a world in which some small corps of our many selves (we contain multitudes) may find themselves realized, a privilege and a mockery. Even the cold pleasure of being a miser of freedom who hoards up possibility and only spends his life on necessities—even this loneliest pleasure gets its savor from some imagined mutuality. All solitude is deferred company. And the inescapable, maybe tyrannical fact that life is social means that it entails problems of verification and morality whether an analyst would like to impose them or not. If it weren’t for other people, we could follow Phillips and his post-Freudian Freud, teacher of “the impossibility of self-knowledge,” and leave our identity crises and prisoner’s dilemmas behind. Some poststructuralists (Delueze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus) went so far as to imagine a schizophrenic hero whose proliferating, fissiparous selves would have ceased to cause her anxiety because they all knew one thing only: that there is no one to know, just desires to play host to. To anyone wishing to be that kind of hero there may be strictly nothing to say, except “Good luck.” Others may wonder where this image of the good life can have come from.

Phillips belongs to that broad movement of intellectuals, most emblematically Foucault (author of the preface to Anti-Oedipus), who reject just the sort of knowledge their disciplines were once thought to procure. This knowledge, in the form of anthropology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy, was meant to be knowledge of what Phillips in one instance gingerly calls “a putative human subject.” The idea is that in representing human beings as one thing or another (as savages, Orientals, lunatics, even as universal humankind), the human sciences helped make people objects that could be seized and then disposed of by the powers that be. In this penitent surmise the bent toward totalizing comprehension could become the accomplice of totalitarianism, and the analyst’s couch   could turn into a Procrustean bed. And it’s true that in China today, as once in the Soviet Union, psychiatrists are enlisted by the state to label dissidents as delusionals in need of locking up. With this in mind any bid for knowledge of self and others can look like a power grab. “Knowing who you are,” says Phillips, “means telling people what to do.” That is too stark, just as
it’s unlikely that a third-hand Hegelianism was really necessary to launch Stalin on his terror. Still, the experts have often enough served as high-minded apologists for oppression, and for simple unhappiness, that the point is well taken.

Yet Phillips has right under his nose a model of knowledge that should be able to survive his guilty strictures. He is both a literary critic and a psychoanalyst, and clearly sees the parallels between these two ways of responding to other people’s words. But he could go further. He could see that not only is psychoanalysis like literature, but a person is like a serial novel, a roman-fleuve. Critics in their interpretations are like analysts in theirs: helpful, persuasive, correct, creative—or some or none of these. What they aren’t is exhaustive. The further they explore their object the more it teems with undeclared significance. Their comprehension is not on that account a form of incomprehension, but it is a mystery rite, with the result that the more elaborately precise their sayable awareness of the object becomes, the more their attitude is one of humility, not hubris. Ordinary persons and great books (the only books at all adequate to what it’s like to be ordinary) are stimulated into fresh mystery by each recognition they receive. There are different reasons not to incinerate people and not to burn books, but one reason can be identically put: We don’t know what is in them.

In Equals Phillips has started to approach political themes through an extended analogy between psychoanalysis and his wistful version of democracy. But here too there is much further to go without reverting to the glibly dire civilizational diagnoses of Fromm and Brown et al in the fifties and sixties. The theory of the dynamic unconscious is the main article of Freud’s thought, and without it there is no Freudianism, not even a post-Freudian one. The theory is sometimes criticized as enthralling people to their pasts and seeing adult life as a bungled recapitulation of childhood. In the same way psychoanalysis is often considered to license reckless binges of interpretation. The power of psychoanalytic interpretation, though, is really to undo interpretation. The unconscious loves to shunt all oncoming events onto its settled tracks of feeling, and it does this by being a reductive critic. It has the same few interpretations perpetually at the ready, and so Freud tried to match these obsessions of the unconscious with his own theoretical ones. The more complete the analysis, therefore, the more it would allow us to live as unfinished people. Psychoanalysis attempts to let the past be past by establishing our continuity with it. This is its decisive aid to the cause of freedom which Phillips so attractively champions, and in a more psychoanalytic culture we would more consciously derive our political protections and political opportunities from our being, and wanting to be, unfinished.

But that is only to say that psychoanalysis is an excellent device of liberal civilization. The most menacing, violent feature of the world right now would seem to be the sinister compact of zealots and cynics. Both believe in their transparency to themselves. The cynic thinks he serves only himself; the zealot thinks he only, righteously, serves something else. Psychoanalysis should remind us, by contrast, never to be too certain of our motives and to show a decent hesitancy with regard to other people. Yet we (meaning, as is usually meant, the professional middle class and their overgrown children; meaning we in the reliably and helplessly Democratic precincts) are already persuaded of the virtues of liberalism. Our attorney general may not be; but we are. And in our reluctance to submit to authority or announce our own, we are like adolescents. Good for us. Winnicott was praising this reluctance when he condemned fascism as “a permanent alternative to puberty.” Permanent adolescence, then, would be an alternative to fascism. Psychoanalysis convincingly saw the exile of its mostly Jewish practitioners in the 1930s as a consequence of the German and Austrian refusal to tolerate an identity crisis. Grown people, with cynical righteousness, fabricated a paternity out of fatherland kitsch and made themselves its obedient children. (It seems fair to say, without making any other comparison, that official America, post–9/11, has been especially energetic in warding off an identity crisis.) Phillips is thinking along these lines when, tirelessly nice, he compliments one of the German exiles, Fromm (whose “apparent banality could be provocative and engaging”), for having written “books that could inspire adolescents.” Somewhere else he hopes that his own work will do the same. But what about adolescence as a model of life?

Once hardly more than the pivot between childhood and adulthood, adolescence now begins a little earlier and can be renewed, if you like, for about as long as your driver’s license. It would be too easy to notice this development with cheap disdain: better to live as adolescents than to succumb to cynicism or righteousness. We don’t think of England and America as the home countries of psychoanalysis, but, thanks to the Nazis, they have been and are. In America psychoanalytic inwardness was smoothly joined with native individualism, and adolescence got a second wind. For many people in our parents’ generation it helped reopen the frontier by placing it inside them. But this is just why Phillips’s vision of psychoanalysis as a type of American dream, and his careful petitions for creativity, inspiration, and freedom, are not more seductive than they are. The case would be different if America hadn’t gotten to feel like such an old country, with its revolution and civil war so far past, its institutions and favorite words so well established and widespread; and if we hadn’t seen so many people, their lives stuttering with false starts, grow old in beginning things all over again, and feared—at least I have—that we might end up doing the same. It is depressing, it does one’s serotonin levels no good, to see latency so often confirmed by emergence, to watch lives go blank with novelty. And it has become too late not to see that the Jeffersonian rhetoric we learned in grade school and the Foucaultian one taught in college can serve equally well to trumpet a kind of smiling autism according to which everyone is free to play as they like for the same reason the stakes are trivial: They are too much alone.

In his great consideration of childhood play in Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud speculated that his little grandson might be revising mom’s absence by throwing his toys out of sight and neglecting to retrieve them: “At the outset he was in a passive situation—he was overpowered by the experience; but, by repeating it, unpleasurable though it was, as a game, he took on an active part…. Throwing away the object so that it was ‘gone’ might satisfy an impulse of the child’s… to revenge himself on his mother for going away from him.” So the boy tried to convert his mother’s departure into her banishment. And it’s hard not to wonder, in reading the pre-post-everything Freud, whether something analogous isn’t going on when we insist, strenuously and cheerfully, on the playful elusiveness of any true self. The determination always to hide out in new disguises—could it have been adopted in distress at our never having being found? Because while any true self fears one sort of discovery as intently as it fears death, there remains another kind of discovery, blissful, this kind, that we long for in our hidden life with an ardor equal to our concealment.

More Reads

Leave No Trace

Madeleine Watts

Send in the Clones

James Pogue

The Disaster and How Some Escaped

Will Stephenson