Interviews

Adam Phillips, The Art of Nonfiction No. 7

Interviewed by Paul Holdengräber

Adam Phillips was born in Cardiff, Wales, in 1954. He was educated at Oxford, where he read English. Later he trained as a child psychotherapist and would become the principal at Charing Cross Hospital, in London. He also worked for seventeen years in the National Health Service; his one stated professional regret is leaving the public sector. His current private practice consists mainly of adults who see him at hourly intervals, mostly for fifty minutes each.

Phillips does not e-mail. He uses the phone to stay in touch, making calls between patients. The time constraints and tight schedule are deliberate calculations: for two and half decades, he has devoted every Wednesday to his writing. He is the author of nineteen books, among them: Winnicott (1988), On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored (1993), Monogamy (1996), Houdini’s Box (2001), Missing Out (2012), One Way and Another (2013), and, with his partner, Judith Clark, The Concise Dictionary of Dress (2010). A regular contributor to the London Review of Books, Raritan, and The Threepenny Review, Phillips is also the general editor of new translations of Freud’s work published by the Penguin Press.

The following interview took place over several years and across two continents. Some sessions were conducted before large audiences at the New York Public Library; the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, in Idaho; Les Assises Internationales du Roman, in Lyon; and the Serpentine Gallery, in London. Private sessions were conducted at his offices in Notting Hill, a leisurely five-minute walk from his home. The space in which he sees patients is large and furnished with a couch and a straight-backed chair: Phillips sits at an angle across from his patients, looking mostly out the window, at a point in the distance, while he listens. It helps him focus, he says. At the far end of the office sits a CD player with rock-and-roll classics. Down the adjoining corridor is a much smaller study where he does all his writing; here, his desk looks over rooftops. Both rooms are book lined: British and American poetry, essays, and novels lie piled on shelves and floor, in some places three or four layers deep. On the days he sees patients, Phillips arrives at the office as early as six in the morning in order to read for an hour or two before his first appointment. (He claims to require very little sleep.) He also reads between consultations, whenever he can. As he puts it, “I need to hear other voices.”

During our conversations, in public and private, Phillips spoke in whole paragraphs, but did not hesitate to take pause or to digress. “Digression,” he has written, “is secular revelation.”

—Paul Holdengräber

 

INTERVIEWER

How did you choose to become a psychoanalyst?

PHILLIPS

When I was seventeen, I read Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and I thought it was an interesting, exciting life. And then I read D.W. Winnicott’s Playing and Reality when it came out, and I had a tremendous feeling of affinity for the book. I don’t exactly know what I thought of it—I can’t remember exactly—but I felt that I completely understood it, and I knew then that I wanted to be a child psychotherapist. I don’t know what that knowing was a knowing about. It wasn’t a revelation, it was a conviction. I read the book and I knew what I wanted to do. It collected me.

Then I read Freud, who seemed to me a version of the Jewish family life that I knew. Here was a voice that felt very familiar to me—not that my parents spoke psychoanalysis at all. But there was something familiar about the voice. And so that bridged the gap, because Winnicott is chronically English, and obviously my family are not.

INTERVIEWER

I want to ask what you mean by that, but already I’m struck by the centrality of books in this story.

PHILLIPS

When I went to school as an adolescent, I had an English teacher who talked about literature with the same kind of passion that my family talked about each other. In other words, there was an intensity in this engagement that I’d never heard before. It was contagious and inspiring. My teacher had been taught by F.R. Leavis at Cambridge. Leavis was a literary critic who treated English literature as a secular religion, a kind of answer to what he thought was a post-Christian society. He had a fanatical assurance about literature that made you intrigued about the writers he didn’t like. And my teacher at school felt something comparably zealous. It wasn’t zealous in that we were told exactly what to read and what to think about the books, but it was conveyed to us that certain books really did matter and that you were involved in some rearguard action for the profound human values in these books. This was conveyed very powerfully—that the way to learn how to live and to live properly was to read English literature—and it worked for me. I was taught close, attentive reading, and to ironize the ambitions of grand theory. I was educated to believe that A.E. Housman was more interesting than Hegel, and I do. Marianne Moore, the philosopher J.L. Austin, and William Empson were key figures for me then.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still feel that?

PHILLIPS

Yes, but not in the same way. Fortunately, I never recovered from my education, I’ve just carried on with it. If you happen to like reading, it can have a very powerful effect on you, an evocative effect, at least on me. It’s not as though when I read I’m gathering information, or indeed can remember much of what I read. I know the books that grip me, as everybody does, but their effect is indiscernible. I don’t quite know what it is. The Leavisite position, more or less, is that reading certain sentences makes you more alive and a morally better person, and that those two things go together. It seems to me that that isn’t necessarily so, but what is clear is that there are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. There’s something about these books that we want to go on thinking about, that matters to us. They’re not just fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about.

INTERVIEWER

When you said “the Jewish family life that I knew,” what did you mean?

PHILLIPS

My parents were second-generation émigré Jews from Russian Poland. My father’s parents were given the Welsh name Phillips because no one could understand the name Pinkus-Levy. My grandfather was a tailor and a traveling salesman. I grew up in an extended family in Cardiff, and the extended family consisted of my parents, my sister, my father’s parents, my aunts and uncle, and my two girl cousins, from that side of the family. These were the people I saw three or four times a week.

INTERVIEWER

What did you talk about?

PHILLIPS

My parents were very left-wing, so there was a lot of talk about politics. There was a lot of talk among the men about sport. There was a lot of talk about sex and food and money and relationships. And there was a lot of ... just sort of hilarity. I don’t want to give too pastoral a view of this—everyone was anxious all the time—but there were a lot of laughs. And we were encouraged to do jobs that contributed something good to the culture, to be a doctor or lawyer, probably. This was a combination of acquiring social legitimacy and prestige— to be safe—and doing something that contributed to the common good.

INTERVIEWER

And you think that has something to do with being Jewish?

PHILLIPS

I think it has something to do with it, in the sense that my parents were keen to assimilate. They never remotely denied being Jewish, but they did want to be British. That was unequivocal. And, they were not religious. I did have a bar mitzvah, but it was for my grandparents. That was the story, anyway. So I didn’t grow up in a religious culture, but I did grow up in a very Jewish culture. And when I read Freud, I thought, Freud’s talking about the things they talked about in my family. Now, they didn’t talk about it like that, but the issues were the same. I think that Freudian psychoanalysis recycles something for me about a Jewish past and a Jewish sensibility.

INTERVIEWER

Some things you knew and some things you were not really able to recognize.

PHILLIPS

Yes, because occasionally I would think it odd that my family had only properly been in England for one generation, and it was English literature I was learning about. I should be reading Dostoyevsky or Kafka, not Gawain and the Green Knight. So when I discovered Bellow and Roth and Mailer and Malamud, it seemed closer to my heart in some way. When I read Bellow and Roth, and heard the tones and phrases in Bob Dylan’s voice, I knew that was how I felt, even though I could not be more English. It was confusing but I wasn’t at all confused.

INTERVIEWER

So by joining the psychoanalytic profession, you made a choice to go back to the family roots?

PHILLIPS

It was certainly being part of something for which I felt a strong affinity, an affinity which was unintelligible to me. I should say it wasn’t only Jewish American writers who felt close to my heart. Reading Emerson was the most thrilling thing for me, for lots of reasons, but one was because it freed me from the wailing wall of Judaism. The way Emerson says, Enjoy Shakespeare but don’t worry about him, use him to do something new—we’re here to write our own sentences. Or, when his son died, “The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.” This was absolutely extraordinary to me, in a way not entirely dissimilar to Bellow or Roth or Mailer. In each case there was the tremendous energy and vigor, the feeling that sentences were cascading out of the writer as he wrote, and that things were turning up that the writer himself did not understand. That he went with it without knowing what it was saying. I found some of the same gusto and brio in contemporary American critics like Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Richard Rorty. There was a sort of blitheness that I loved, a pleasure in the recklessness of one’s own mind. And I liked Freud because he could make bad behavior sound like good behavior. I loved Whitman for the same reason.

It was in the music, too. Like everyone in my generation, I can remember the first time I heard Dylan’s voice, Neil Young, J.J. Cale, Joni Mitchell—that music made me imagine myself. It was so evocative. It taught you nothing, but you felt you’d learned everything you needed to know. You would think, What kind of life might somebody have whose voice sounded like that? I don’t mean rock-star life or money, nothing to do with that. Just unheard-of possibility. I got more from the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach than from anything in Melanie Klein.

INTERVIEWER

Your first book was a study of Winnicott. How did that come about?

PHILLIPS

Christopher Bollas suggested that I write to Frank Kermode and propose it. Frank was editor of the Fontana Modern Masters series. It was a very prestigious series in England in those days. The idea that I would write a book on Winnicott seemed astounding to me. So did the idea that I would write to Frank Kermode. He had been a hero of mine at school. Anyway, I did it.

INTERVIEWER

What did you write?

PHILLIPS

“Dear Frank Kermode, It’s been suggested to me that I might send you a synopsis for a possible book on Winnicott for your series. Would you be interested?” And I sent him a paper I had written, “On Tickling,” the first thing I ever wrote. It was two and a half pages long. And he sent me a letter back saying, “Dear Mr. Phillips, No one wants to tickle old men. Your paper reminds me how much I miss it. Could we have dinner?” We had dinner. We got on very well. He said, I’d be delighted if you’d write this book. And that’s how it started.

Of course, I had no idea how to write a book. I had never had any desire to be a writer. I wanted to be a reader. So, I thought, what you do is, you do all the research, which I did, and then you take a month off and you write the book. So I took a month off work, and for literally three and a half weeks, I did nothing. I sat around drinking coffee, reading the paper. I just couldn’t do it. It was really terrible. And it was exactly like the way writers talk about writing—which is a feeling that I really wanted to do something and had a lot to say and I was a blank. It was as though there was nothing inside me, so I could no more write a sentence than I could stand on my head. It was absolutely impossible. No amount of willpower, no amount of resolution, determination, conversation with my friends made it happen. But it was as though, at a certain point, something literally got me to the typewriter, and I started typing. It just never stopped. It had a grip on me. And it gave me amazing pleasure to do it.

Since then, it’s always been a version of that. When someone asks me to give a lecture, the minute I put the phone down, I know what I’m going to do the lecture on. There’s nothing to you until someone sees something in you. It is as though I’ve got some latent preoccupations that are crystallized by somebody making a demand on me. And sometimes, of course, it isn’t a demand. Things occur to me.

INTERVIEWER

It seems natural that an interest in literature and in Winnicott should go hand in hand. In Winnicott’s essay “On the Capacity to Be Alone,” he writes that the goal for the child is to be alone in the presence of the mother. For a long time this has seemed to me the single best definition of reading.

PHILLIPS

That idea was one of Winnicott’s most radical, because what he was saying was that solitude was prior to the wish to transgress. That there’s something deeply important about the early experience of being in the presence of somebody without being impinged upon by their demands, and without them needing you to make a demand on them. And that this creates a space internally into which one can be absorbed. In order to be absorbed one has to feel sufficiently safe, as though there is some shield, or somebody guarding you against dangers such that you can “forget yourself ” and absorb yourself, in a book, say. Or, for the child, in a game. It must be one of the precursors of reading, I suppose. I think for Winnicott it would be the definition of a good relationship if, in the relationship, you would be free to be absorbed in something else.

INTERVIEWER

In the preface to Promises, Promises, you write, “The version of psychoanalysis that I want to promote ... is more committed to happiness and inspiration (and the miscellaneous) than to self-knowledge, rigorous thinking, or the Depths of Being... Psychoanalysis does not need any more abstruse or sentimental abstractions, any new paradigms—or radical revisions—it just needs more good sentences.” What did you mean?

PHILLIPS

When I started in psychoanalysis—in British psychoanalysis—it was a very earnest and sentimental profession. There was a kind of vale-of-tears attitude to life, with the implication that life was almost certainly unbearable, that the really deep people were virtually suicidal, and it was a real struggle to believe that—in their language—love was stronger than hate. There were of course notable exceptions, including, fortunately, my analyst. But I hardly ever came across an analyst, when I was training, who made me feel that they really loved sex. So it was very difficult to be a relatively happy person training to become a psychoanalyst. I was then twenty-three, and it seemed to be held against me as a sort of shallowness that I was in some way “happy.” I don’t mean that I was happy all the time, but mostly in good spirits. I realize now, of course, that that psychoanalytic world was so grim because the owners of psychoanalysis were all middle-aged and older.

Also, I had assumed that anybody who would be interested in psychoanalysis would be interested in many other things as well, but a lot of psychoanalysts in Britain were very anti-intellectual. I assumed that Freud was one writer among many, whereas he was regarded by the establishment in British psychoanalysis as offering a kind of supreme fiction about contemporary life. So one of the dismaying things was reading contemporary psychoanalysis, which was so poor. There were some notable exceptions, for instance Wilfred Bion and Winnicott and Marion Milner. They were writers. Freud, to me, originally was a writer.

INTERVIEWER

You have said, “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—whether it is something I can’t help but be interested in.

PHILLIPS

Yes, I was interested in psychoanalytic writing as being evocative rather than informative. At the time, the professional literature was written as if it was informing you either about how to practice psychoanalysis or about what people meant, broadly speaking. I couldn’t read it like that. Partly temperamentally, and partly because I’d had a literary education. For me, Freud made sense then not in terms of the history of science or the history of neurology, but in terms of the history of literature. I had been lucky enough to read Tristram Shandy before I read psychoanalysis.

One advantage of thinking about psychoanalysis as an art, instead of a science, is that you don’t have to believe in progress. The tradition I was educated in was very committed to psychoanalysis as a science, as something that was making progress in its understanding of people. As if psychoanalysis was a kind of technique that we were improving all the time. This seemed to me at odds with at least one of Freud’s presuppositions, which was that conflict was eternal, and that there was to be no kind of Enlightenment convergence on a consensual truth. The discipline was practiced, though, as if we were going to make more and more discoveries about human nature, as though psychoanalysis was going to become more and more efficient, rather than the idea—which seemed to me to be more interesting—that psychoanalysis starts from the position that there is no cure, but that we need different ways of living with ourselves and different descriptions of these so-called selves.

The great thing about the psychoanalytic treatment is that it doesn’t work in the usual sense of work. I don’t mean by this to avoid the fact that it addresses human suffering. I only mean that it takes for granted that an awful lot of human suffering is simply intractable, that there’s a sense in which character is intractable. People change, but there really are limits. One thing you discover in psychoanalytic treatment is the limits of what you can change about yourself or your life. We are children for a very long time.

INTERVIEWER

So what’s the point?

PHILLIPS

The point is that it’s an experiment in what your life might be like if you speak freely to another person—speak and allow that person to show you the ways in which you stop yourself thinking and speaking freely. I don’t mean by that that it doesn’t change symptoms. I know by my own experience that it does. But I think the most interesting thing about it is its unpredictability. If you buy a fridge, there are certain things you will be guaranteed. If you buy a psychoanalysis, you won’t be. It’s a real risk, and that also is the point of it. Patients come because they are suffering from something. They want that suffering to be alleviated. Ideally, in the process of doing the analysis, they might find their suffering is alleviated or modified, but also they might discover there are more important things than to alleviate one’s suffering.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel, in some way, that you have failed when a patient leaves your office feeling better?

PHILLIPS

No. Relationships should make us feel better. Why else bother? But there are different ways of feeling better. And I don’t think the project is to make people feel better. Nor is it to make people feel worse. It’s not to make them feel anything. It’s simply to allow them to see what it is they do feel. And then what redescription might change.

INTERVIEWER

And this is done through a conversation?

PHILLIPS

It’s done through conversation, but it’s also done through the medium of who the analyst happens to be. In other words, it’s not a replicable technique. In that sense it clearly isn’t scientific, because it’s something to do with what goes on between two people, mostly unconsciously. An analyst should be someone you have an appetite to talk to and who has a desire to listen to you. Not a professional desire, which is a contradiction in terms. Analysts are people who don’t speak on the patient’s behalf, don’t speak for someone, unlike parents and teachers and doctors and politicians.

INTERVIEWER

Appetite is a word that often comes up when you talk about psychoanalysis.

PHILLIPS

Analysis should do two things that are linked together. It should be about the recovery of appetite, and the need not to know yourself. And these two things—

INTERVIEWER

The need not to know yourself?

PHILLIPS

The need not to know yourself. Symptoms are forms of self-knowledge. When you think, I’m agoraphobic, I’m a shy person, whatever it may be, these are forms of self-knowledge. What psychoanalysis, at its best, does is cure you of your self-knowledge. And of your wish to know yourself in that coherent, narrative way. You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself. Because the point of knowing oneself is to contain one’s anxieties about appetite. It’s only worth knowing about the things that make one’s life worth living, and whether there are in fact things that make it worth living.

I was a child psychotherapist for most of my professional life. One of the things that is interesting about children is how much appetite they have. How much appetite they have—but also how conflicted they can be about their appetites. Anybody who’s got young children, or has had them, or was once a young child, will remember that children are incredibly picky about their food. They can go through periods where they will only have an orange peeled in a certain way. Or milk in a certain cup.

INTERVIEWER

And what does that mean?

PHILLIPS

Well, it means different things for different children. One of the things it means is there’s something very frightening about one’s appetite. So that one is trying to contain a voraciousness in a very specific, limiting, narrowed way. It’s as though, were the child not to have the milk in that cup, it would be a catastrophe. And the child is right. It would be a catastrophe, because that specific way, that habit, contains what is felt to be a very fearful appetite. An appetite is fearful because it connects you with the world in very unpredictable ways. Winnicott says somewhere that health is much more difficult to deal with than disease. And he’s right, I think, in the sense that everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.

We all have self-cures for strong feeling. Then the self-cure becomes a problem, in the obvious sense that the problem of the alcoholic is not alcohol but sobriety. Drinking becomes a problem, but actually the problem is what’s being cured by the alcohol. By the time we’re adults, we’ve all become alcoholics. That’s to say, we’ve all evolved ways of deadening certain feelings and thoughts. One of the reasons we admire or like art, if we do, is that it reopens us in some sense—as Kafka wrote in a letter, art breaks the sea that’s frozen inside us. It reminds us of sensitivities that we might have lost at some cost. Freud gets at this in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. It’s as though one is struggling to be as inert as possible—and struggling against one’s inertia.

Another of the early analysts, a Welshman called Ernest Jones, had an idea that, interestingly, sort of disappeared. He believed that everybody’s deepest fear was loss of desire, what he called aphanisis. For him that’s the thing we’re most acutely anxious about, having no desire. People now might call it depression, but it wouldn’t be the right word for it, because he’s talking about a very powerful anxiety of living in a world in which there’s nothing and nobody one wants. But it can be extremely difficult to know what you want, especially if you live in a consumer, capitalist culture which is phobic of frustration—where the moment you feel a glimmer of frustration, there’s something available to meet it. Now, shopping and eating and sex may not be what you’re wanting, but in order to find that out you have to have a conversation with somebody. You can’t sit in a room by yourself like Rodin’s Thinker.

INTERVIEWER

Why not?

PHILLIPS

Because in your mind, you’re mad. But in conversation you have the chance of not being. Your mind by itself is full of unmediated anxieties and conflicts. In conversation things can be metabolized and digested through somebody else—I say something to you and you can give it back to me in different forms—whereas you’ll notice that your own mind is very often extremely repetitive. It is very difficult to surprise oneself in one’s own mind. The vocabulary of one’s self-criticism is so impoverished and clichéd. We are at our most stupid in our self-hatred.

INTERVIEWER

As a writer you work mainly as an essayist. Do you see any special kinship between psychoanalysis and the essay form?

PHILLIPS

Very much so. Psychoanalytic sessions are not like novels, they’re not like epic poems, they’re not like lyric poems, they’re not like plays—though they’re rather like bits of dialogue from plays. But they do seem to me to be like essays, nineteenth-century essays. There is the same opportunity to digress, to change the subject, to be incoherent, to come to conclusions that are then overcome and surpassed, and so on.

An essay is a mixture of the conversational and the coherent and has, to me, the advantages of both. There doesn’t have to be a beginning, a middle, and an end, as there tends to be in a short story. Essays can wander, they can meander. Also, the nineteenth-century essayists whom I like, like Emerson and Lamb and Hazlitt, are all people who are undogmatic but very moralistic, though it’s not quite clear what that moralism is. That’s to say, they are clearly people of very strong views who are trying not to be fanatical. The essay is very rarely a fanatical form, it seems to me, partly because you’d just run out of steam. It would just be propaganda of the most boring sort. In order to write a compelling essay, you have to be able to change tone. I think you also have to be reflexively self-revising. It’s not that these things are impossible in other genres, but they’re very possible in essays. As the word essay suggests, it’s about trying something out, it’s about an experiment. From the time I began writing—although this wasn’t conscious—I think that was the tradition I was writing in.

INTERVIEWER

Digression is crucial?

PHILLIPS

If one looked into digression, what would begin to fall apart very quickly would be the idea of nondigressive prose and conversation. It seems to me that digression may be the norm, the invisible norm, in conversation. Because if you believe in digression as something separate, you must believe it’s possible to be coherently focused and purposive. What psychoanalysis shows is that one is digressive whether or not one wants to be. Indeed, the digressions one is unaware of are the most telling. Even in normal conversation it’s very interesting how we pick up on each other’s digressions, not only in terms of content, but also in terms of tone of voice, so that it’s actually extremely difficult to stay on a subject. To stay on a subject you’ve got to know what the subject is.

INTERVIEWER

Would it be right to say that what interests you most is actually when people are off subject?

PHILLIPS

What interests me most is when people are trying to be on the subject and can’t help but go off it. When somebody is really trying to articulate something, genuinely struggling to articulate something, as if they will know when they’ve done it. And in the process of trying to do that, they say all sorts of other things.

INTERVIEWER

Give me an example.

PHILLIPS

I can’t, because you’d have to be the one hearing me do it—I can’t give myself as an example. But if you try to articulate anything, the hesitations in it and the difficulty will produce spin-offs. In ordinary conversation, the spinoffs are often ignored. One thing psychoanalysis does is listen out for them, because they’re roads not taken.

INTERVIEWER

In your essay “On Not Getting It,” you write, “We are, in actuality, something we don’t have the wherewithal to recognize.”

PHILLIPS

The trouble is not that we can’t or don’t know things. The trouble is that we use knowing in bits of our lives where it doesn’t work, or where it’s actually not the point. I don’t mean to argue against knowing things or knowing people. But when you say you know someone, it’s very hard to know what it is you want by doing that.

INTERVIEWER

In love, for instance?

PHILLIPS

Yes. We really do know the other person in some profound sense—and also we really don’t. And you could think that the fantasy of knowing is spurred by or prompted by something like “this person has a powerful effect on me and it’s so overwhelming that I’m going to manage this through a fantasy of knowledge.” For Proust, for example, knowing people is often very much about dealing with the anxiety that one can’t control them. As though, if I know or understand you, then I will have some sense of what you’re doing and where you’re going when you’re not with me. The question is what we use understanding to do.

As young children, we listen to adults talking before we understand what they’re saying. And that’s, after all, where we start—we start in a position of not getting it. It’s true of listening to music, too. The emotional impact of music is so incommensurate with what people can say about it, and that seems to be very illustrative of something fundamental—that very powerful emotional effects often can’t be articulated. You know something’s happened to you but you don’t know what it is. You’ll find yourself going back to certain poems again and again. After all, they are only words on a page, but you go back because something that really matters to you is evoked in you by the words. And if somebody said to you, Well, what is it? or What do your favorite poems mean?, you may well be able to answer it, if you’ve been educated in a certain way, but I think you’ll feel the gap between what you are able to say and why you go on reading.

In the same way, a psychoanalysis bent on understanding people is going to be very limited. It’s not about redescribing somebody such that they become like a character in a novel. It’s really showing you how much your wish to know yourself is a consequence of an anxiety state—and how it might be to live as yourself not knowing much about what’s going on.

INTERVIEWER

And how much perhaps you need to live that way, not knowing.

PHILLIPS

Or that there’s no other way to live. That’s what’s happening anyway, actually, but it’s concealed or covered up or assuaged partly by fantasies of knowing who we are. When people say, “I’m the kind of person who,” my heart always sinks. These are formulas, we’ve all got about ten formulas about who we are, what we like, the kind of people we like, all that stuff. The disparity between these phrases and how one experiences oneself minute by minute is ludicrous. It’s like the caption under a painting. You think, Well, yeah, I can see it’s called that. But you need to look at the picture.

INTERVIEWER

There is a quotation in Missing Out that haunts me, from Randall Jarrell— “The ways we miss our lives are life.” What does this mean to you?

PHILLIPS

Well, this is an example of the thing we’re talking about. Because when you say, What does this mean to you?, I think, What is it about?

INTERVIEWER

But isn’t analysis precisely asking somebody, What is it about?

PHILLIPS

It can be that. But it’s also having a sense of when that’s the wrong question to ask. There are some areas where it’s useful to make meaning, and there are other areas of one’s life where the making of meaning is a way of preempting an experience. If you go to a concert or listen to a piece of music thinking, What does this mean?, you won’t have experienced the music.

But about Jarrell’s line, tell me, what do you think it’s about?

INTERVIEWER

I don’t know what it’s about, but it strikes me as true, and painful because it’s true.

PHILLIPS

What’s painful about it? It could be extremely comforting, couldn’t it? It could be a way of saying, Actually, that’s what a life is, it’s the lives you don’t have. As if to say, Don’t worry, because that’s what a life is. Or just that missing all our supposed other lives is something modern people are keen to do. We are just addicted to alternatives, fascinated by what we can never do. As if we all had the wrong parents, or the wrong bodies, or the wrong luck.

INTERVIEWER

Are you telling me not to worry?

PHILLIPS

I’m saying there could be a comfort in that line. And the comfort would be something like, You don’t have to worry too much about trying to have the lives you think you’re missing. Don’t be tyrannized by the part of yourself that’s only interested in elsewhere.

INTERVIEWER

Really?

PHILLIPS

Well, you could just think it’s terrible, and start believing that mourning is the realest thing we ever do. But one is going to feel different things at different times. As Emerson said, “Our moods do not believe in each other.”

There’s a mood in which you’ll feel, This is a terrible fact about life. We’re always going to be preoccupied by what we’re missing, by what we’ve lost, and there’s no way around it. And in other moods we can think, Well, that’s what it is to live a life, so get used to it, that’s the point. That’s not a problem, it’s the point.

INTERVIEWER

My favorite line in “On Not Getting It” is from John Ashbery—“The worse your art is, the easier it is to talk about it.”

PHILLIPS

The real reason one does what one does is precisely because one can’t give an account of it, if you see what I mean. It is often the case that people who are really absorbed in something can only do the thing that they do, which is why people who write or paint or whatever often find critics very difficult. Either because, obviously, they’re not being praised enough, or, alternatively, because it feels irrelevant. It feels necessary because clearly art is buoyed up by responses to it, but it is also somehow irrelevant.

And again, the same is true, in a different way, in psychoanalysis. There’s a whole range of analysts who can give extremely fluent, elaborate accounts of how they do psychoanalysis, and I—one, you—always think, If it’s like that, then surely they’re not doing it, because psychoanalysis is about the unconscious, how could you know what you were doing on that scale? So it seems to me that the better your psychoanalysis is, the less able you’ll be to talk about it.

INTERVIEWER

Is this the way in which you approach your own work? It seems to me you haunt your subjects, you approach them from different angles, you surprise them, you try to encircle them—and you can’t quite get to them, you release them, and, with other quotations or the same quotations, you come back to them in the subsequent book.

PHILLIPS

I’m sure what you’re saying is true—it sounds true. My experience of doing it is I just write it. One’s style is like one’s smell—because you can’t smell it, you need other people to tell you about it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write about your patients?

PHILLIPS

I never write about people I see, and there are very few clinical vignettes. I think what happens in analysis is entirely private, and I also wouldn’t want people to be thinking they are material for my books. Because they’re not. Very occasionally, in Houdini’s Box, for example, something is quoted verbatim. When it is, obviously, I ask the person if I can use it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel that you write your essays to satisfy something that was absent in your work as a psychoanalyst?

PHILLIPS

Partly, yes, although that makes it sound too calculated. In the doing of it, it wasn’t like that. Retrospectively, I think I began by writing the kind of essay on psychoanalysis that I wished I could read. Or perhaps I was, as it were, unconsciously appealing to the kind of psychoanalytic readers I would want. Or trying to make an audience of people who might be interested in this way of talking and writing. Or to find out if they were.

INTERVIEWER

What do you want people to take away from your books?

PHILLIPS

Obviously, it’s not up to me. But what I want is for people to enjoy the experience of reading the books and then forget about them. I’m not trying—consciously, anyway—to promote a set of theories or ideas. There’s a spirit, I think, in the writing. There must be. But really, I hope you read one of my books because it gives you pleasure or because you hate it—you read it for those sorts of reasons—and then you discover what you find yourself thinking, feeling, in the reading of it. That’s it. I don’t add anything to psychoanalytic theory at all. Or any other kind of theory.

INTERVIEWER

You’re talking less of your critics and more of your readers. Do you make a distinction?

PHILLIPS

I get two kinds of reviews. One kind of review says, This is narcissistic, self-indulgent, pretentious, empty. Don’t be impressed and don’t be fooled. And then I get another kind of review which says, These books are interesting. It’s always one of the two things, and clearly from their own points of view, they’re both right—though I prefer the second view. You have to be really good at masochism to welcome criticism. But you know, you can’t write differently, even if you want to. You just have to be able to notice when you are boring yourself. And I am fortunate, because I don’t have to earn my living by writing, so I really don’t have to think about it. I don’t mean it doesn’t impinge upon me, but I don’t have to be preoccupied by it.

INTERVIEWER

Now you’re writing a biography of Freud. I wonder what it is you think you might discover—which is a wrong question, because you don’t know.

PHILLIPS

I don’t particularly want to discover anything, in that sense, about Freud. Nobody needs another biography of Freud. There are very good ones already. What I want to do is write a short biography, in the light of the previous biographies, that can say something about Freud’s doubts about what is in some ways a very absurd but very absorbing genre—that is, biography.

I’ll give you a simple example. Freud makes a huge palaver about not going to Rome. He desperately wants to go to Rome. Can’t go there, for all sorts of reasons. In 1901, he finally goes with his brother. Peter Gay says something like, In 1902, Freud eventually conquered Rome. But he went as a tourist! Ernest Jones, who wrote an early biography of Freud, says something like, Freud entered Rome in triumph. It’s astounding. And you can see obviously what’s going on here.

INTERVIEWER

What is?

PHILLIPS

Well, what seems to me to be going on is there’s a rhetorical enforcement of a fantasy of Freud as a hero. When people write biographies they often idealize their subjects or demonize them, depending on what they are using their subjects to do or say. Understandably, Jones and Gay want Freud to be an extraordinarily masterful person who, by undertaking his self-analysis, is doing some great heroic thing. And it was an impressive thing to do, but plenty of people had done things like that in the past, as Freud knew. People had gone through crises in their lives and tried to work them out through writing and through conversations. Now, what came out of this particular crisis was the invention of psychoanalysis. And of course that is very remarkable to the people who love psychoanalysis. But Freud was writing in a long spiritual, religious tradition of crisis writing. It’s not the Adoration of the Magi. It’s a limited thing.

Not that I want to write a sort of antiheroic, disparaging book at all. I just want to see whether it’s possible to entertain Freud’s fantasy of a realistic biography.

INTERVIEWER

What would that mean?

PHILLIPS

I’m doing it to try to find out. It may not be a possible thing to do.

INTERVIEWER

In Monogamy, you write, “There are fundamentally two kinds of writer, just as there are two kinds of monogamist: the immaculate and the fallible. For the immaculate every sentence must be perfect, every word the inevitable one. For them, getting it right is the point. For the fallible, ‘wrong’ is only the word for people who need to be right. The fallible, that is to say, have the courage of their gaucheness; they are never quite sure what might be a good line; and they have a superstitious confidence that the bad lines somehow sponsor the good ones.” Do you find yourself in one or another of those?

PHILLIPS

By aspiration, obviously, I would want to be the fallible kind. Because I would want to feel that in the writing I could try things out and could risk being pretentious, gauche, naive, brash—things I would rather not be seen to be, in order to find out what it’s like. Anybody who writes knows you don’t simply write what you believe. You write to find out what you believe, or what you can afford to believe. So when I write something and it sounds good, I leave it in, usually, to see what it sounds like to someone else. To somebody else it might sound awful or brash, but I want to be able to have the courage of my brashness. I don’t leave things in that I know to be terrible, or that I don’t, as it were, find interesting—I don’t do that—but if there’s a doubt about it and it sounds interesting, I’ll leave it in. And I want to be free to do that, because that’s why I write. When I write, things occur to me. It’s a way of thinking. But you can perform your thinking instead of just thinking it.

INTERVIEWER

You are very productive for someone who spends four days a week seeing patients and two days at home with his family. When and how do you write?

PHILLIPS

That’s easy to talk about, but difficult without either sounding precious or glib—because there is no creative process. I mean, I sit down and write. That is really what happens. I sit down in the morning on Wednesday and I write. And sometimes it doesn’t work and almost always it does work, and that’s it. Like everybody else, I sometimes have a problem starting, but it passes quickly. I sometimes get stuck and then I just abandon it. I don’t try. I’m not somebody who works hard at writing. I wouldn’t know how to do that. I wouldn’t know what to do, if you see what I mean. I just write until it runs out, and then I start again when I can do it again, but I do like to be able to do it regularly, simply because I love the experience of doing it.

INTERVIEWER

Do you go into the office to write?

PHILLIPS

Yes, I can only write in my office. I love the romance of people who can write anywhere, who can write in hotels, but I can’t write anywhere but in that room. At least, so far I can only write in that room.

INTERVIEWER

The office where you see patients is fully covered with books—not just the shelves but the floor. They are everywhere. Do you think the extraordinary amount of books has an effect on your patients?

PHILLIPS

It must do. Some people speak about it. And of course one’s room is a powerful communication and demand. Not a known demand, but a demand. I mean, the books are here because I like books and I like having these ones to hand. They are, in a sense, current. I don’t mean I’m reading all of them all the time, but they’re linked to things that I’m thinking about writing. Or they’re just books that I love from the past, that I read and reread. I think there must be some real reassurance for me—the bourgeois, cultured-middle-class fantasy of the reassurances of culture. In any case, they are integral to my life, to my sense of myself, and they have been for a very long time.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that the great decline in the popularity of psychoanalysis has been a good thing for psychoanalysis or a bad thing?

PHILLIPS

I think it’s the best thing that could have happened to psychoanalysis, because it means there is now no prestige in it, no glamour, no money, no public for it, so you’ll only do it now if you really love it, if it really engages you. I hope that the disaffection with it—even though it’s bad economically for people who do it, obviously—will free people to work out what it is. It’s too new for anyone to quite know what it is yet. I don’t at all feel that there was a heyday and then it all fell apart. I think it’s beginning to dawn on some people what it might be good for, that it might actually help us to live differently, and in unforeseen ways. To me it’s one of the best things around. I don’t need anybody else to agree with me, but I do feel that’s true. And I think it’s a very good thing that people have become extremely skeptical. Psychoanalysts used to hide behind mystifications of language, they hid in their societies, they never spoke to anybody else. The moment they started speaking to people outside, the whole thing looked vulnerable, which was the best thing for it to be.

You can’t just hold forth about human nature now. You have to talk to anthropologists and sociologists and historians and philosophers, to patients and critics, to anyone who is interested. Really, to anybody who has a view and can open it up. Psychoanalysis is everything that anyone says about it. I think eventually it will get better, or it will disappear.

INTERVIEWER

If psychoanalysis were to disappear, what would you like to do for a living?

PHILLIPS

Well, if it disappeared I’d go on doing it. But I would be ... I could imagine being a teacher, I could imagine being a primary-school teacher. I’d like to do that. I wouldn’t want to be a writer. I couldn’t do that.

INTERVIEWER

You once said that you would like to live in a world where there were fewer artists and better relationships. What did you mean by that?

PHILLIPS

I think partly it was a daft thing to say, but one bit of it seems right to me, which is that if you live in a culture which is fascinated by the myth of the artist, and the idea that the vocational artistic life is one of the best lives available, then there’s always going to be a temptation for people who are suffering to believe that to become an artist would be the solution when, in fact, it may be more of the problem. There are a number of people whom you might think of as casualties of the myth of the artist. They really should have done something else. Of course some people get lucky and find that art works for them, but for so many people it doesn’t. I think that needs to be included in the picture. Often one hears or reads accounts in which people will say, Well, he may have treated his children, wives, friends terribly, but look at the novels, the poems, the paintings. I think it’s a terrible equation. Obviously one can’t choose to be, as it were, a good parent or a good artist, but if the art legitimates cruelty, I think the art is not worth having. People should be doing everything they can to be as kind as possible and to enjoy each other’s company. Any art, any anything, that helps us do that is worth having. But if it doesn’t, it isn’t.