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By Adam Phillips
In his 150th birthday year, Freud's reputation is on the slide. His theories of penis envy and the Oedipus complex are widely ridiculed as saying more about his own priapic fixation than human nature. The so-called "talking cure" of psychoanalysis has given way to the quick-fix solutions of drug treatment and the"think positive" slogans of cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Meanwhile, psychoanalytic institutions cling anxiously to the image of Freud as a scientist.
In 1993, when Adam Phillips published his first book of psychoanalytic essays, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored, he was trumpeted by the literati as Freud's great white hope. Profiles in Esquire, Vogue and the New York Times magazine followed, along with 10 further books, in which he criticizes psychoanalytic institutions as dogmatic cults that refuse to accommodate developments in science.
Phillips argues that the objective truth of Freud's theories is irrelevant, their therapeutic power lying in their qualities as stories. Proposing that Freud be read alongside Pushkin and Dostoyevsky as a great literary writer, rather than as a scientist, Phillips baffles anti-Freudians who feel that he steals their ground. His colleagues either ignore him, or upbraid him as a flighty postmodern stylist, seeking refuge in ambiguity, rather than drawing conclusions or committing to ideas.
Critics reach for desperately abstruse formulations to capture the paradoxical style of his essays, which have won comparisons with Emerson, Sontag, Trilling and Barthes. The novelist Will Self, formerly an analysand of Phillips's, has praised his "circumambulation tergiversation." (According to Webster's, "To circle on foot ritualistically and evade a clear-cut statement.")
A Phillips essay presents less a linear argument than a playful interrogation of conventional assumptions about an idea. Even while ranging across innocuous-sounding themes - such as tickling, cross-dressing, flirtation, hinting, and being laughed at - the elusiveness of his essays makes pre'cis near-impossible.
"I don't want people to be able to repeat what I think," says Phillips. "I want them to have their own thoughts in the reading. The guru is the problem not the solution here. So I'm very reassured that people often say: 'I can't remember anything about that book but I really enjoyed it.'"
The slipperiness of his writing reflects the psychoanalytic process; in his new book, Side Effects, Phillips describes digression as "secular revelation."
"With psychoanalysis, people come with a coherent narrative, and what turns up is an opportunity to speak up about their stray or nomadic thoughts."
Phillips' view of Freud as a literary titan is shared by Harold Bloom, and was recognized when Freud won the Goethe Prize in 1930. Side Effects explores Freud's fear of his literary, unscientific instincts - what he recognized as the similarity between a conjectural case history and a short story.
Later analysts, such as Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, Jacques Lacan and Sandor Ferenczi, also tried to marry psychoanalysis with science.
But Phillips sides with the anti-Freudian philosopher Bertrand Russell in disputing Freud's scientific claims. "You can't predict what's going to happen in psychoanalysis. You can't verify it or falsify it. The idea of doing psychoanalytic research seems to me to be a contradiction in terms, because each question is different."
He traces Freud's loss of cachet to the insularity of contemporary psychoanalytic writing. "Psychoanalysis needs to cease being a cult interested only in talking to its own members."
Phillips is no longer affiliated with any psychoanalytic organizations and he seems to relish being little read by other shrinks. "If there is a thing called 'psychology,' it is about ordinary life. It's about how we all live as ourselves. So it shouldn't be a specialization."
That his detractors have him down as a subversive revisionist illustrates "just how impoverished the reading of Freud has been. I'm a maverick because there's been so much dull, unimaginative consensus in the past."
Avoiding professional conferences, Phillips prefers to speak to university students, who are "more alive, more engaged, more passionate, and more reckless."
His current project of editing the new Penguin Modern Classics translation of Freud has not endeared him further to the cognoscenti.
James Strachey's definitive 24-volume edition of Freud was criticized - most famously by Bruno Bettelheim - for dressing Freud up with a scientific lingo, introducing jargon such as "parapraxis" and "cathexis" into his conversational German. Phillips is using a separate translator for each book, with "no consensus about technical terms, so each translator has to come to their own conclusion."
They are literary translators rather than experts on Freud. "As someone who can't read German, I am reading the translations for readability, not accuracy."
The introductions are being written by literary critics, who have "no investment in psychoanalytic institutions."
PHILLIPS PRACTICES clinical psychoanalysis four days a week from his Notting Hill apartment, charging modest fees of up to 50 per 45-minute session. "I don't want to be part of the culture that believes that something is good if it's expensive."
Hanif Kureishi, Tim Lott and Will Self are former patients, but contrary to hearsay, Phillips rarely takes on celebrities. "That's just not the culture I want to be part of."
His sole requirement for accepting a patient is that he is "moved by what they're suffering from." In place of the Freudian image of the detached analyst, Phillips suggests that the therapist-patient dynamic is "a very intimately impersonal relationship. But that doesn't make it less intimate. It's not a laboratory."
He confines his writing to Wednesdays, but works at a dizzying pace, producing enough lectures and essays for a book most years. "I'm slightly fearful of giving myself more time to write. I'm fearful of what might happen if the writing ran out, because it comes from a part of me that I have no control over."
Phillips became smitten by psychoanalysis at age 17, reading Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections. "I was interested in what seemed like the depth. This looked to me like a great life."
Freud soon superseded Jung, who Phillips decided was "a much more interesting man than Freud but an infinitely less interesting writer."
He also found Freud's writings uncannily familiar. "It felt like family life. There's something about Freud's work that feels - for want of a better word - very Jewish."
Phillips's parents were secular Jews, born of refugees from the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia and Poland. He experiences his Jewishness as a background white noise of threat: "A feeling that the world can go very badly wrong. Our middle-class parents wanted us to integrate into culture; I've been to public school, I've been to Oxford, I've been to all the great British institutions. What it doesn't eradicate is the feeling of insecurity."
At Oxford, Phillips studied English literature under a traditionalist faculty, which had not yet come to regard the poststructuralist and psychoanalytic theories he enjoyed as acceptable tools for literary analysis. He graduated with third class honors.
"I believed that if I had the courage of my convictions I wouldn't take my degree, because I didn't believe that my interest in literature had anything to do with getting a qualification."
After beginning - and abandoning - a PhD on the American poet Randall Jarrell, Phillips spent four years training to be a child psychoanalyst. His analyst was Masud Khan - the charismatic Pakistani e'migre', later disgraced for his sexual and emotional abuse of patients and his anti-Semitism.
"I don't mean that all the things that were said about him may not be true, but the man who I was in analysis with was really profoundly reliable, an extraordinarily powerful listener, and a very intuitive, intelligent man."
Khan helped him recognize his refusal to emotionally leave home, which was barring him from developing a satisfying sexual life. "My passionate bond with my parents made me more timid than I wanted to acknowledge about engaging with people outside my family."
For almost two decades, Phillips worked as a child psychotherapist for the National Health Service. In 1995, frustrated with the bureaucracy, he shifted to private practice and began to treat mostly adult patients. Fatherhood reduced his desire to work with children.
"After I had my own children, I found it very difficult to listen to the things that people do to children and that children do to each other," he explains.
He is adamant that psychoanalysis should be pleasurable, rather than the "version of original sin secularized" that he was schooled in. "When I was in training, there was a very strong feeling that the people who were most authentically in touch with themselves were authentically in touch with their misery," Phillips says.
"Psychoanalysis at its worst makes people feel worse - makes them feel that they're very destructive, very inadequate and very dependent. All those things may be true, but the opposites are equally true. People are as phobic of their strengths and talents as they are of their disabilities. There is a genuine pleasure in realistic acknowledgment."
Psychoanalysis is often caricatured as a bourgeois indulgence, but Phillips sees himself as a facilitator of solidarity.
"When external reality becomes unbearable, people have symptoms. It seems no accident to me that psychoanalysis was 'invented' during the rise of fascism and the breakdown of empire. The aim of psychoanalysis is to enable people to be less self-preoccupied, so that they can re-enter political, communal life."
Now that psychoanalysis has been superseded by cognitive-behavioral therapy, Phillips views it as a "counter-cultural" phenomenon.
"Cognitive therapy has got to be the therapy of choice in competitive capitalism, because people want to get people back to work as quickly as possible. Psychoanalysis is wonderful because it doesn't do that. It doesn't easily and quickly turn you into a successful consumer and a reliable worker."