Central to Adam Phillips’s Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst is a supreme paradox: A psychoanalyst with a literary flair has undertaken a project he himself acknowledges is doomed from the outset. The very endeavor of biography and autobiography, Phillips tells us at the beginning of what is ostensibly a biography of Sigmund Freud, has more to do with “how ingenious we are at not knowing ourselves, and how knowing ourselves – or the ways in which we have been taught to know ourselves, not least through the conventions of biography and autobiography – has become the problem rather than the solution.”

Biography is problematic for a number of reasons, explains Phillips. Complexities are simplified for the sake of coherence and plot. Plausible life stories become a refuge. The most painful, and therefore most revealing, experiences of childhood are repressed and remain unknown even to the person who experienced them. Often the very nature of one’s experiences – whether they are positive or negative – depends on how these experiences are interpreted – either by the person doing the experiencing or by the biographer. Events might not have even happened as experienced in the first place. The biographical “fact” might not just be irrelevant, it might be downright misleading.

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