Monday, June 10, 2013

Adam Phillips: The Bob Dylan of headshrinking

Karen L. Mulder, guest blogger
Jung in a dream world on the left, and Freud with one of the cigars that finally killed him from the right
One hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud published Totem and Taboo, realized that his cigar smoking was out of hand, and broke off his seven-year friendship with Carl Jung. Jung's takes on sexuality, the unconscious, and the ‘soft science’ of psychotherapy annoyed Freud, at a time when Freud felt that the field he more or less invented needed scientific credibility.
After reading Jung’s autobiography, Britain’s Adam Phillips switched his career dreams from ornithology and literature to psychoanalysis, which he calls “practical poetry.” Although Jungian-trained, Phillips has survived the calumny of being pegged as a Freud lover since 2003 for his outspoken defense of Freud’s actual propositions, which Phillips reviewed thoroughly while editing new Freud translations for the Penguin Modern Classics series. He seems compelled to crack open every culturally normative chestnut for a deeper, more authentic understanding of the original meaning behind things, and has an illuminating way of turning a quotable phrase. Consider, for example, his notion that dream therapy is like travel writing for the subsconscious.
Phillips is decidedly a one-off: intellectually innovative, habitually eclectic, literarily supple, and slightly ‘hipster’ in bearing, according to New Yorker writer Joan Acocella. She described his writing process as more of a non-process. He only writes a piece if it glides out smoothly, and then collects his pieces into a book, reasoning that if the essays emerge at the same time, they must be interconnected. If he gets stuck, he apparently trashes his work without a backward glance. You get the impression that writing invents him, and not vice versa. Acocella concludes, in the end, that he “pretty much does any damn thing he pleases.”
He's earned that right, however lax his approach may seem, because this unorthodox non-regimen works. As of 2013, Phillips has published 17 books, edited 7 books, co-authored 3 books, and also contributes regularly to The London Review of Books, The New York Times, and The Threepenny Review. Phillips has served as a children’s shrink since 1990, and his writing evinces total ease and lucidity, weaving effortlessly through metaphors, stories, and formal literary references that may tap King Lear, Cinderella, and basically the entire Western canon of literature.  
Diane Keaton and Woody Allen, the poster boy for psychoanalysis, in their respective sessions in Annie Hall (1977)
The London Times dubiously dubbed Phillips “the Martin Amis of British psychoanalysis"—a slightly troubling tag if you know that Amis is touted as the master of “the new unpleasantness”—but for Americans, Phillips is more like the Bob Dylan not just of psychoanalysis, but of all the humanities. Perhaps he will eventually be hailed as the master of the “new multidisciplinarity,” a pleasant rebuttal to a century of the stiff institutionalized psychology that makes him crazy.
What is meant by innovative, here? Well, in Going Sane (2005), Phillips critiques a widespread tendency to romanticize or even glamorize insanity at the expense of sanity. Sanity is sidelined because it’s the bland, nebulous standard. It’s not sexy. Irrationality and intemperate behavior, after all, has delivered the prime stuff of literature for centuries. Medieval morality plays dragged their viewers through Hell, and they loved it, cheering on the perversions and the Devil with impunity—a necessary antidote to enforced churchiness. But Phillips’ point is that sanity just doesn’t hold its ground against the multifarious dimensions of dementia. Consider Dante’s "Paradiso" in the Divina Commedia, probably the least visited set of cantos—merely a realm of light, eternal love, and divine presence, populated by floating theologians and virgins. Compared to all the blood, sweat and fears of the "Inferno," Paradise is a huge yawnnnnn. Seriously, what do you prefer to sink your readerly teeth into, Anne Sexton or Rod McKuen?
So Phillips asks, why not listen to ‘sane sex’ instead of focusing solely on obsessive sex, or acknowledge the benefits of rationality rather than always canonizing its opposite? Phillips has noticed after years of practice that people often seem ambivalent about sanity but will endlessly pay good money to therapists for the ability to identify, or maybe even disarm their insanities. He concludes that recognizing both sides is the optimal realization, but that to begin doing this, we need to make a conscious decision to respect our sane voices as well as our racier, irresponsible ones. It’s a simple argument with profound implications.
Phillip’s main tool is his ostensibly reversing logic, which packs a liberating punch because it forces us to re-view old concepts with fresh eyes. Relatedly, Side Effects (2006) wades into the paradoxical way that language often marginalizes meaning when we rely on shortcuts, catchphrases and clich├ęs in our speech without ever touching back to reality. He alludes to telegraphed notions, like sound bytes, that reduce the vitality of original thoughts in dot-dash-dot summations. Such “tangential” communications have the power to derail Freud’s fluid genius, or to impose a rigid, institutionalized cladding on the practice of psychology when, in fact, the field is always changing and expanding. For Phillips, everything is subject to a new perspective, and the consequence is literally refreshing. In a similar vein, On Balance (2010) explores how we tend to prioritize imbalance over equilibrium. In actuality, we need to acknowledge and apply both to function in life.
So Phillips, in essence, is a “both/and” type of intellect in a generally “either/or” climate, and is somewhat revolutionary for dismantling the blinders that specialization can create. The result is as captivating as a Jules Verne plot. You may be flustered or even piqued by Phillip’s invigorating, fresh take on life in general … but you will never be bored.

Art and architectural historian Karen Mulder is all for Going Sane.


  1. Wow!! Methinks there's a dissertation buried in here:) Mental health is still in such a curious corner of our culture these days. Stigmas are still alive and kicking and, worst of all, there's very little being written beyond the "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" variety of self-help swill. Phillips aside, what are some good books on depression, etc? I just read "The Noonday Demon" and it's an astonishingly good read.

    1. I am really keen to watch the film on bipolar disorder called Up/Down
      (formerly classified as manic depression)

  2. Nice to know there are still dream whisperers writing in this age of "Take 2 Zoloft and call me in the morning."
    The still raging furor over the recently revised "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,"(the psychiatrists' Desk Reference) shows how fluid is the landscape of psychotherapy. The language changes with each revision. Gone is "multiple personality disorder" (remember "The 3 Faces of Eve?") Discredited is the retrieval of repressed memories of abuse through hypnosis.
    We plain folk may wonder why "Caffeine Use Disorder" is included in a manual of mental disorders. So I like my coffee black...wanna make something out of it?
    The author of a recently released book claims, rather proudly, to be a sociopath, illustrating again this media-besotted society's lust for novelty/distinction.
    Alas, she seems to be merely a narcissist--dime-a-dozen nowadays!
    Kudos to you for wading fearlessly into such murky waters!

  3. I really enjoyed reading "Going Sane" and "On Kindness" by Adam Phillips.

  4. Wait a minute..wait a minute...
    Something got stuck...(cough!)
    There it is! What is a dot-dash-dot summation?

  5. Speaking of Bob Dylan,

    What's this I hear about him going Electric?

    Attuned to the very latest in Popular Music,

    Baron Von Mugenhausen

  6. Although sometimes a column is only a column (even in dreams), this is a very good column, about a writer I’d never heard of. Well done indeed. (As for Bob Dylan, may he remain ‘forever Jung.’)

  7. Adam Phillips looks a little dipsy-doodle himself in that photo.
    What happened to Psychoanalysis Comics? What a hoot!

    1. I too am lusting after the comics! It seems that only four issues were published .... faugh! They must be hot collectors' items.