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Equals

by Adam Phillips
224 pages,
ISBN: 0465056792


Post Your Opinion
Instead of Poetry, Psychoanalysis
by Michael Kinsella

In the lecture room he seemed to sit apart and be absorbed in something else, as if the subject suggested thoughts to him which were not practically connected with it. He was often in the subject and out of it, in a dreamy way.

Henry Stephens remembering Keats as a medical student

Adam Phillips has often been praised for his elegant essays. A new book by him is 'a literary event', as author and psychotherapist Anthony Storr has suggested. Irish novelist, John Banville, has claimed that "Phillips is one of the finest prose stylists at work in the language, an Emerson for our time."And when in a recent interview for The Times, Phillips was asked who his ideal reader would be for Equals, his reply was telling¨"My ideal reader...wouldn't necessarily understand in the sense of being able to reproduce the argument, but . . . it [Equals] would be evocative of thoughts. They'd read it in the same way you might watch telly." "Or read a poem?" the interviewer suggested. "Exactly", replied Phillips.
English Literature, including Keats's poetry, never seems far away from Phillips's design in Equals. In the past he has selected Richard Howard's poems, Charles Lamb's prose, edited and introduced Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry, Walter Pater's The Renaissance, and written on John Clare's poetry. Currently he is the series editor for the new Penguin Freud translations. Much of this writing and editing reflects his various and voracious appetites for reading (he seems impossibly well read), not just of Freud, Lacan, Eigen or Winnicott, but of related literature. As a student at Oxford, Phillips read English. One of his important mentors there was John Carey who, as Phillips has remarked in Promises Promises (2000), "by teaching me how to read he taught me how to listen."
Indeed, the title essay of that collection might have been a catalyst for Equals (2002). There Phillips observes, "I might feel true to myself in silence¨in the essentially meditative experience of reading literature¨but to be a democrat I must both speak and believe in the value of listening to other people's spoken voices; and not lose too much of my temper when I hear what they say." For this student of literature who turned psychoanalyst, listening, as the preface to Equals suggests, is felt to be at the heart of this book. He writes, "Calling psychoanalysis a talking cure has obscured the sense in which it is a listening cure (and the sense in which it is not a cure at all)."
If studying English Literature taught Phillips how to listen, an essential tool to the psychotherapist's enterprise, it also drew attention to how poetry¨we might think of the Romantic and Late Romantic poets¨made listening into an activity. "We could think of psychoanalysis as an enquiry into the equality of listening," suggests Phillips, "in which we can be equal to what we hear." These essays might then be thought of as the poetry Phillips does not want to write. This does not mean that his prose cannot be poetic at times, as when he refers to "the gothic glamour of our passions." There are his usual mischievous aphorisms, for example, "If the best thing we do is look after each other, then the worst thing we do is pretend to look after each other when in fact we are doing something else"; or, "The anxiety of influence is as nothing compared with the anxiety of exchange." And then there are those extraordinary questions which only Phillips can stumble into asking: "What would have to happen for someone to grow out of the fear of being laughed at?" or "What would it be like to be disinhibited?", all of which catch the mind off guard, adding to the joy of reading this collection.
As with the "magic casements" that are Phillips's other titles: On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored (1993); On Flirtation (1994); The Beast in the Nursery (1998); Darwin's Worms (1999); Houdini's Box: On the Art of Escape (2001); in Equals, Phillips¨though I'm not sure he would endorse this¨seems to continue to resist being a poet, and by disobeying that desire he ironically maintains it, in order to sustain thinking creatively, imaginatively, even to be beautifully negative in his approaches to psychoanalysis. I do not want to enlist Phillips within the ranks of poets. After all, his line endings are a giveaway that he is not. But it does seem important to highlight that up to a point, every essay in this book is what it thinks it is¨an enquiry into how we talk, listen and a description of the democratic contexts needed for interaction. Phillips writesű "Through the experience of analysis a person might rediscover an appetite for talking and for listening and for disagreement. Which is an appetite for democracy." However, since Phillips cannot help but write stylishly, descriptively and persuasively, these essays are also something extra as they are often "evocative of thoughts" that are in and out of the book's subject.
The book consists of three sections: Equals, Under Psychoanalysis, and Characters. Phillips spends the first two discussing the relationship between psychoanalysis and democracy, between psychoanalyst and attendee and, as Phillips puts it, "What might be the alternatives to leadership." Many of the book's essays, it would seem, privilege the idea that there is no test upon the mind until it finds itself in dual allegiance. In other words, how we bare our conflicts is what sets us off¨in all senses of the phrase.
In order to understand what Phillips might call our moral obligation to be equals, the essay, "The Soul of Man Under Psychoanalysis", on Freud, through an examination of T.S. Eliot and Oscar Wild, questions the authoritativeness of psychoanalysis to the point of suggesting that it is "too knowing." And the willingness of Phillips to test, even sabotage, his chosen path appears to be part of his scrupulousness as a writer and analyst. For instance the essay, "Childhood Again", seems to make and break his links to Freud. Phillips argues, "We may then not need to go on¨at least quite in the same way¨plundering our lives, and our children, for childhood. Psychoanalysis, in other words, could teach us to lose interest in our histories." To question the privileged position of psychoanalysis and the therapist is not without its risks and the book concludes, perhaps rather riskily, with a selection of reviews.
The ending may seem disjointed, but this does not mean, as some reviewers have suggested, that the book lacks coherence. Indeed, such an accusation might say more about our overt preoccupation with having definitive answers and conclusions. For Equals, like a good poem, allows for a multiplicity of readings and misreadings. And most importantly of all, Phillips's reviews make you want to read Svengali's Web, a history of hypnotism, which as Phillips has noted, "leads us to wonder whether hypnosis makes a mockery of our ideas of freedom, or whether seducing and being seduced is actually all we are free to do"; a biography on Bertrand Russell, where biography is characterised as "an unusual form of coupledom, in that only one person gets to make the choices"; and Paul Steinberg's Holocaust memoir which is seen as "exemplary because we can learn nothing from his story." Ending with these book reviews which are largely about how people have suffered in various ways from feeling that they are not being listened to, are not equal, or are mad, does not over-determine the connections in the book. In some respects, the reviews of Speak You Also: A Survivor's Reckoning or Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, delicately touch on the broader themes explored in the chapters "Superiorities", "On Being Laughed At" and "Around and About Madness"¨how we are reduced, exposed and degraded by inequality, by "being laughed at", by "jokes" or by our "luck".
In a book about equality¨by equality Phillips does not mean sameness, he "means differently appealing but equally compelling good things"¨democracy and it might be added, sharing and caring, Phillips wisely avoids self-revelation and autobiography (it would likely have interrupted his discourse). Although silent about himself, a personal voice comes to the foreground in "Against Inhibition", when he suggests, "I think people are always making themselves and other people into something; that psychoanalysis itself is, a story about how we are made up, and how we are¨albeit unconsciously¨making up our lives."
The decision to include his review of John Lanchester's Mr. Phillips, seems delightfully, if not knowingly, self-reflexive, self-deflating. He says, "The name is ordinary, so the book announces itself as a book about no one special; though, of course, when men without qualities become the subject of novels a certain gravity (if not grace) is conferred on them." And it is this kind of gravity and grace, which Phillips brings to these essays and his subject(s) and the way in which they elicit responses from the reader, that recommends Equals. ˛
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