On Adam Phillips

It is significant that conversion, in its extremist form, comes on the scene when frustration is no longer bearable, as a failure of tolerance—the preeminent virtue of political liberalism. Phillips’s other watchwords are the familiar liberal ones of sympathy, negotiation, compromise, and collaboration. “Liberals,” he says in On Wanting to Change, “prefer conversation to rote learning, multiple perspectives to exclusive explanation, [and] dissent to conformity.” For those reasons, “Liberalism is by definition not something one is converted to.”

Is psychoanalysis a path to change, or a way of avoiding it?

Édouard Vuillard, The Yellow Curtain. Via Wikimedia.

I am intensely envious of Adam Phillips. The British psychoanalyst and writer has published some twenty-odd books, starting with a study of the British analyst Donald Winnicott in 1988. Every year or so since then he has issued a new volume of psychoanalytically tinged observations on “the unexamined life.” To hear him tell it, this prodigious output has been achieved without agony or even second thoughts. Phillips laid out his routine in an interview with the Paris Review: on Wednesdays, the weekday he puts aside from clinical practice, he sits down at his desk and simply writes himself out. “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.” It’s as if writer’s block were a skill, something you had to “know how to do”—as though he just missed school on the day the rest of us learned how to stare for hours at a blinking cursor. “I sit down and write. That is really what happens.”

At this point a critic is expected to say something about the “enviable facility” of Phillips’s prose, which is indeed drifting, allusive, paradoxical, aphoristic—closer to a patient’s free associations than an analyst’s diagnosis. But I really do mean envy. I badly covet his ability to pour himself onto the page. Of course, Phillips is not stopping me. If I am unable to just “sit down and write,” that is not because he is hoarding this capacity, keeping all of the writerly ease for himself. It is because I have organized my own mind in a hampered way. What is stopping me from writing is only myself.

Or so one would surmise from reading Phillips. Self-obstruction and the fantasies that keep it in place are themes that run like a thread through most of his books. In Monogamy (1996), it is the enticement of infidelity, the lure of the affairs we are not having. In Missing Out (2012), it is the nagging sense of a road not taken, a life not lived. In Unforbidden Pleasures (2015), it is a kind of moral self-hassling that accompanies our obedience and our transgressions alike. But no matter what the subject at hand, the underlying point always comes back to this: “We spend most of our lives anxiously hoping we will change . . . and doing everything we can to stop this happening.” For Phillips, the doomed attempts at change that compose so much of the discontent in our culture and politics are not unlike the neurotic symptoms that people bring into psychoanalytic treatment. They are all a kind of “orchestrated disappointment.”

The insight here is an old one but a good one. We seem locked into scripts that always end the same way, as if by fate. But this “eternal return of the same” is in fact self-imposed. The things I seem to be excluded from in life are exclusions of my own making. If I cannot churn out books as effortlessly as Adam Phillips, the psychoanalytic question to ask is what writer’s block is doing for me. Phillips is always eloquent about how the obstacles to our desire can become our dearest possessions, precisely because they keep us from finding out what we really want. As he puts it in the essay “On Being Left Out”: “We make ourselves up through our exclusion of ourselves. When we talk, in the psychoanalytic way, of the unconscious, or repression, or mechanisms of defense, or the decentered subject, we’re talking about leaving and being left out of our desire, our feeling, our thought.”

For Phillips, even psychoanalysis itself can sometimes seem like one more way to avoid change. He revels in mock-confessing that the profession “cannot help people.” Or even more bluntly: “Psychoanalytic treatment . . . doesn’t work.” Such an admission is unexpected from someone who surely charges for his services. But his point is that the very idea of a treatment that “works” presupposes too much about what that would look like. The notion of a “cure” fills in too many blanks—thereby closing off the possibility of something more unguarded and promiscuous.

Phillips envisions psychoanalysis less as a semi-medical practice oriented towards a cure than as a form of conversation or “ritualized improvisation.” In On Getting Better (2022), an examination of the psychoanalytic cure as a “fantasy” (a particular kind of avoidance), he asks: “What can the psychoanalyst do if she doesn’t try to cure people? And what could the patient want if he didn’t want to be cured?” His answer is unlikely to satisfy insurance companies who reimburse for out-of-network treatment: “The patient goes to an analyst to find out why he has gone to an analyst.” The “why” of that desire cannot be known beforehand. As an epigraph to Houdini’s Box (2002), Phillips quotes Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The way to solve the problem you see in life is to live in a way that makes the problem disappear.” (He omits what Wittgenstein goes on to say: “Someone who sees no problem in life is blind to something important, even to the most important thing of all.”)

In his excellent book on Freud and biography (not itself really a biography) in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, Phillips regrets the turn that psychoanalysis has taken since its beginnings in listening to the so-called “chimney sweeping” chatter of hysterical women. What happened to this “profession for dreamers” and “outsiders”? Much like Lacan, Phillips prefers the early Freud, whose inventiveness was spurred by mundane, even silly subjects, that at first sight appear least worthy of serious analysis: dreams, slips of the tongue or pen, seeming accidents of forgetfulness, and the most groan-inducing of Jewish jokes. Phillips laments that the discipline suppressed these origins and subsequently became too respectable, dogmatic, and pessimistic, “muffled by its all-too-bourgeois therapeutic ambitions.” Where psychoanalysis had been a sort of fiction, a “story” of Freud’s, it has hardened into an authoritative system. As Phillips writes in On Flirtation (1994):

The people inside the profession are . . . prone to the kinds of fundamentalism that stifle imagination in the name of something often called professional integrity (by “fundamentalism” I mean here the assumption that something can only be legitimately criticized from within). It is part of the institutional hypocrisy of psychoanalysis to suggest that everything the psychoanalytic institution rejects is valueless, and everything the patient rejects he must be encouraged to reintegrate.

When Phillips critiques the institutional rigidity of contemporary psychoanalysis, he is harking back to an internecine conflict in the annals of the discipline, between the adherents of Anna Freud and those of Melanie Klein. Anna immigrated with her father to London after the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938 and took herself to be the heir and representative of his theory, which she termed “ego psychology.” (Freud called Anna his “Antigone.”) But London was already the center of a heterodox school of “object relations,” centered around Klein’s innovations.

The disputes began when Klein and Anna Freud separately laid claim to the domain of child analysis, which Freud père had only touched on. Both women claimed to be ultra-loyalist to him, in incompatible ways. Hostile theoretical camps soon formed around them, with disagreement arising over a host of issues. Unlike Freud, for whom the unconscious was founded on repression, the Kleinian unconscious is much more riven by persecution and paranoia. In particular, she emphasized the almost raging psychosis and aggressiveness of early infancy. For her, the dependence, despair, envy, and destructiveness that marked the child’s relation to its first objects (the mother and her breasts) are immortal fantasies, never surpassed, which remain alive in adult anxiety. The Anna Freudians found all this to be a piece of lurid guesswork on Klein’s part; they proposed a much more sober appeal to the patient’s “ego strength.” The nastiness of the divisions were such that Klein’s own daughter took sides against her, the analyst who had done more than anyone to bring out the importance of the child’s early and all-consuming relation to its mother. A savagely satirical play could be made from the transcripts of the so-called “controversial discussions.”

Phillips’s allegiance is more or less to the “Middle Group”—including Winnicott, Marion Milner, and the flamboyantly controversial Masud Khan (Phillips’s own analyst and mentor)—which set up in the daylight between the hostile camps. For Phillips, these authors serve as a virtual “ideal ego.” His description of them is transparently aspirational: “Their work is characterized by an interest in observation and empathy, a suspicion of abstraction and dogmatism, and a belief in people’s ability to make themselves known and understood.” It would not be wrong to see in the very “middleness” of the Middle Group something of the English spirit quite alien to the displaced Viennese parties, but also something of what Winnicott was getting at with his famous idea of “transitional space.” More on that in a moment.

In his latest book, On Wanting to Change (2022), Phillips considers one of the more headline-grabbing methods of changing ourselves: conversion experiences, religious or otherwise. When we think about religious conversions, we might picture a thunderclap, followed by a blinding vision, a chorus of saints, maybe some stigmata for good measure. My own favorite depiction—Michelangelo and Caravaggio notwithstanding—is in Howard Hawks’s film Sergeant York (1941). The title character, a Kentucky rustic played by Gary Cooper, is struck by lightning on his way to murder his neighbor, and thrown from his horse. Drenched, stunned, he wanders into the backwoods church he drunkenly used for target practice in the opening scene. The pastor strikes up “Give Me that Old Time Religion,” and with a rising voice, Cooper joins in: “It was tried in the fiery furnace, / It’s good enough for me.” He is received, kneeling, by the faithful who surround him. The conversion is ecstatic. But more importantly, it is definite: a complete break with the past and its errors.

For Phillips, however, the danger is not that conversion is an absolute transformation. The danger is that it is not. He discusses the examples of Saint Paul and Saint Augustine, whose “conversions simply expose the conflicts they were meant to resolve and clarify.” Paul is delivered not to omniscience about God’s will and omnipotence about his own salvation, but to utter powerlessness. In Augustine’s Confessions, what looks like a decisive rupture with sin, in the famous garden scene, has no finality. Augustine writes, “It is not the case that what was being said comes to an end, and something else is then said, so that everything is uttered in succession with a conclusion.” Conversion, like confession, is ongoing, interminable.

In these examples, Phillips wants us to hear the religious resonances of one of Freud’s earliest insights, about the role of “conversion” in the forming of hysterical symptoms. The hysterical patient might develop a spasm in her throat, or lose control of a limb. Psychoanalysis was born when Freud understood such symptoms as expressions of a desire that had gone underground. “Hysterics suffer primarily from reminiscences,” he wrote in Studies on Hysteria. (Incidentally, the diagnosis “conversion disorder” is one of the last holdouts of psychoanalytic terminology in the DSM-5, the diagnostic manual used by psychiatrists as well as by insurance companies.) The forbidden expression of sexual life is conducted in another guise: illness. As Phillips puts it, hysterical conversion occurs “in the service of sustaining the very thing that is supposedly being replaced.”

Phillips suggests that a patient who comes to psychoanalysis for his sufferings “has already undergone his conversion experience.” Patients come to analysis bristling with unconscious conviction, equipped with an already established “self-cure”—the expression is Masud Khan’s—of defenses, inhibitions, and identifications. It is this private array of DIY adaptations that the patient is really suffering from. In the essay “First Hates,” Phillips cites an agoraphobic case he treated, someone who could no longer go to the theater for fear that he would throw himself off the balcony. What the agoraphobic fears about open spaces, Freud tells us, is the fulfillment of forbidden desire. Phillips adds the twist that the phobia provides a sense of security. The phobia “hoards the past”; it is “the one place in a person’s life where meaning apparently never changes.” A symptom is knowledge about ourselves that no longer operates like knowledge.

In fact, people don’t really come to psychoanalysis to get better, or to change. The issue is that something, somewhere, has stopped working for them. Their pleasures and “self-cures” have become, as Phillips puts it, “unsatisfying.” What the patient wants is for their old way of managing, which has begun to sputter and malfunction, to work again. Psychoanalyst therefore consists, according to the Lacanian analyst Bruce Fink, in giving the patient “something he or she never asked for.”

Phillips illustrates how this might work in practice in a clinical vignette, “Clutter: A Case History.” A painter finds his paintings unbearably messy and disordered, as if “the way he painted stopped him from painting.” This patient can also only get dressed by dropping all his clothes in a pile on the floor and letting his outfit “find” him, what he calls his “mess-dress” method. In this way, clutter “could protect [the patient] from his own delirium of wanting,” and keep him a safe distance from “the derangement of desire.” It is as if the obstacle, the clutter that gets in the way of painting, eclipses the desire itself—as if frustration were a veil more fascinating than what it conceals. Things begin to come unstuck when the patient adopts Francis Bacon’s “untechnique” of throwing paint at the canvas, thereby “making a mess of the mess.” The point, for the analytical treatment, is not to remove the blockage and thereby return to a pure desire. Rather, it is to turn a frustrating habit into a spontaneous gesture:

Bacon is saying, whatever destroys the image takes its place; that the act of ruining something produces something else. That the spoiled thing can not only—though not always—be better than the original thing, it can also be, indeed can’t help but be, utterly unpredicted; in that sense, unique, unprecedented: that only by absolutely losing something—“an image that you will never retrieve,” as Bacon says—do you get the surprising thing.

The attachment to a pristine original image is what has to be relinquished. For Phillips, this sacrifice is low cost. It is not even a sacrifice. When he writes about loss, he can sound like one of Job’s supposed friends in the Old Testament, questioning whether there is really anything to be gained by covering oneself in sackcloth and lingering among the ashes. In hustling us to move along, to abandon cathexes, Phillips does not imagine that anything important is being left behind.

When Phillips discusses contemporary psychoanalysis, he often singles out for criticism the “quasi-religious” importance that it accords to mourning, a development he attributes to Klein’s influence. Klein’s theory of mourning is in some ways a reversal of the picture Freud lays out in his essay “Mourning and Melancholia.” Freud saw the two conditions as inversely related. “In mourning, it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia, it is the ego itself.” For Freud, depression (melancholia) is distinct from mourning, because the depressed person turns inward. Klein argues just the opposite. For her, the move towards the depressive position is a move outwards. Mourning the loss or injury of the “good object”—the maternal breast in its real wholeness—allows the healthy individual to arrive at a sense of the mother as a whole person, towards whom reconciliation is possible. Depression, in a sense, is the goal of Kleinian mourning. From mourning emerges the ability to deal with everything else.

Phillips is suspicious of “the idea that mourning is the realest thing we ever do.” For him, mourning is a way of not-letting-go, of holding on too tight. His concern is that grief will not really move on, that it will get stuck and cling to that which is being mourned. As Tennyson put it in his great elegy, In Memoriam: “Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drowned.” Mourning entails a creeping moralism that has no place in psychoanalysis. While mourning insists on a devastating loss somewhere, Phillips, in his usual sunny way, wants us to see that “there is nothing wrong.”

Phillips finds his preferred model for loss in another classic psychoanalytic template. He endorses Winnicott’s formulation of the childhood “transitional object,” usually a stuffed animal or blanket that stands in for the mother or breast. (Linus in the Peanuts comic strip is the inescapable reference.) The key point is that such objects just drop out of importance over time—the object, according to Winnicott, is “not forgotten and it is not mourned.” Instead, the child gradually loses interest as she grows. What had been an unbreakable attachment is allowed, gently, to lapse. This would be the alternative to conversion: the attachment is painlessly dispelled. Instead of making endless “reparation” to mother (what Winnicott calls the “guilt-driven labor” of the Kleinian paradigm), the meaningful attachment to the mother is a bridge to other, transitional, phenomena—a field which encompasses art, religion, and what Winnicott describes as “imaginative living.”

Something can be lost (“let go”) because its significance is transferable, diffused into the broader world, in play, artistic creativity, and religion, but also in darker forms: obsession, addiction, and fetishism. Like Winnicott, Phillips is especially interested in how play can bridge absence, and how absence and frustration (if they can be tolerated) make something more real, even if that means giving up the omnipotent control of fantasy.

For Phillips, as we will see, the notion of cooperative discovery holds great promise when we shift to the broader world outside the consulting room. But it is worth remembering that Freud’s own darker social vision, at the end of his life, began with a very different idea of how children’s play attempts to master absence. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud recounts a “game” played by his grandson, of throwing away a reel of string and saying, “Gone!” What is really “gone,” however, is the mother, whose departures cannot be controlled so easily by the infant. Freud is fascinated by the compulsion to repeat this loss in the form of play, which leads him to formulate the concept of a “death drive.” For Freud, civilization’s discontents are self-inflicted wounds. Social life, politics, culture are not a bridge. They are the chasm itself.

The standard-issue psychoanalytic understanding of politics is that we carry over the inarticulate needs of childhood into the tumult of society. Politics, as a way of relating to others, is a garbled translation of the solipsism, envy, sullen exclusions, and arbitrary permissions of an unconscious past. Different psychoanalytical schools offer different theories about the specific origins of political life. For Freud, politics begins in the aggression and guilt knotted together in the Oedipus complex. His account of ambivalent identification with paternal authority in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego is what allows Adorno, who explicitly draws on Freud, to analyze the libidinal appeal of fascism.

What is decisive for object relations—the theory that Phillips is more or less popularizing—is an early moment in child development: the infant’s experience of the mother as a frustrating object. The mother is both the first object of desire and obstacle to desire. As an object, she is painfully unknowable and separate, but also intolerably present and impinging. To begin with, the baby sees the mother’s breast as simply part of itself—under its own “magic control,” as Winnicott puts it. As frustration inevitably creeps into the picture, the breast assumes the status of a separate object. The breast may not show up on demand, or it may let the hungry infant down in some way, or the greedy feeding may feel like a destruction of the breast.

For object relations, the “solutions” to the baby’s frustration at the hands of the mother are determinative for everything else. The point is not to avoid frustration altogether. Frustration is integral to acknowledging the reality of objects, as opposed to hallucinated satisfactions: “The object of desire emerges out of the obstacles to [its] presence, as out of a fog.” That is why, for Phillips, “the worst thing we can be frustrated of is frustration itself”—as when the mother jumps in too soon and anticipates what will stop the baby crying. On the other hand, if frustration goes on for too long, and becomes intolerable, the baby might defend against its frustration, either in envious fantasies of dominating the object, or else in a blank denial of her dependency.

Phillips presents this scene of infantile frustration as the forerunner of much that is familiar in politics, especially fantasies of omnipotence and persecution, rage at dependence, and the denial of exploitation. These fantasies are all too easy to detect in right-wing ideology, which Phillips discusses (in a 2019 interview about Brexit, nationalism, and populism) as being unconsciously structured as a scene of “becoming the humiliated object.” He diagnoses anti-immigrant rhetoric as an adolescent identity crisis, “a reaction against the unsettling experience of unclear, extremely permeable boundaries.” But the point applies more broadly to capitalist ideology, according to which, Phillips says, “exploitation is the only game in town. The only question then is whether you can do it more or less nicely.” Yet there may be, in psychoanalytic terms, a developmental path beyond exploitation:

Winnicott, in his developmental theory, talks about the child exploiting the mother. In a way, if you were to translate this developmental theory into a political theory, you would say that though the first stage is exploitation, the second stage is an acknowledgement of the limits of exploitation, because once you stop exploiting the other person, they become real to you and once they become real to you, all sorts of other things are possible between you.

Phillips also identifies certain pathologies on the political left. In On Wanting to Change, he scolds the political theorists Étienne Balibar and Wendy Brown for their incuriosity about how desire is rooted in frustration. Revolutionary politics (Balibar) and the critique of neoliberalism (Brown) are “over-organized,” “paranoid,” and “instrumental.” Their projects attempt to obliterate (or “convert”) all that is frustrating and inconvertible at the base of social life. These are “over-organized aims,” amounting to “a false cure for ambivalence.” According to Phillips, revolutionary politics runs up against a “conversion horizon” when faced with what is ultimately “unbearable” and “intractable.”

Much of this, it should be said, is recycled from Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. But the question that Balibar addresses—of how revolutionary violence can be converted and put to civilizing purposes—also lies at the heart of many of Freud’s anthropological texts. Most famously, in Totem and Taboo, Freud spins a wild tale of a long-ago “primal horde,” in which a band of envious sons rises up against and kills the tyrannical father. After this bloody deed (the sons also consume the father in a cannibal feast), the sons are seized with remorse and renounce the desires that motivated them. Civilization begins with the conversion, we might say, of this guilt, which is internalized as law and religion: the prohibition of incest, the deification of the father. Phillips writes as if revolutionary excess were a risk we might reasonably steer clear of, but Freud wasn’t so sure.

It is significant that conversion, in its extremist form, comes on the scene when frustration is no longer bearable, as a failure of tolerance—the preeminent virtue of political liberalism. Phillips’s other watchwords are the familiar liberal ones of sympathy, negotiation, compromise, and collaboration. “Liberals,” he says in On Wanting to Change, “prefer conversation to rote learning, multiple perspectives to exclusive explanation, [and] dissent to conformity.” For those reasons, “Liberalism is by definition not something one is converted to.”

One of the most tedious leftist criticisms of psychoanalysis is—to put it as vulgarly as possible—that the consulting room is not the barricades. Phillips himself can sound like a parody of the liberal psychoanalyst for whom all social problems are ultimately reducible to private fantasies. When he talks about politics, it is as a matter of getting along, playing well with others. In an interview with Granta, Phillips defines “real politics” as “finding out what people might want from each other.” To be sure, he will volunteer that “one of the things psychoanalysis is, implicitly, and explicitly, is a critique of capitalism.” But what that critique amounts to, in his further elaboration, is that “neo-liberal capitalism . . . makes kindness very, very difficult.” Or he will reduce Brexit to an aversion to emotional dependence, as if a commitment to free trade and open markets was a milestone of personal maturity.

When Phillips holds forth about politics from the analyst’s chair, his usual glittering paradoxes turn dull. These pronouncements are disappointing and useless, but it would be unfortunate if a critique of capitalism discarded the insights of psychoanalysis. It’s just that those insights are not to be found in stray musings that apply psychical object relations to social categories. Rather, capitalist alienation has to be thought of in psychoanalytic terms. We badly need a concept of the unconscious to talk about the blind spots and the unseen forms of loss in capitalism. To take up Phillips’s own vocabulary, if ever there was a case of a “conversion” that betrayed its promise—in which desire was misunderstood as the obstacle to its fulfillment—it must be capitalism.

Liberalism tends to collapse the ills of capitalism into directly social relationships. But the specifically capitalist forms of dependence and exploitation don’t take place between persons at all. They occur rather in the “unconscious” of capitalist production, as relations between things. This makes loss very hard to mourn under capitalism, because it is built into everything we do. Indeed, under capitalism, loss does not look like loss. In the marketplace, everything is bought and sold at its price. Which makes Phillips right, in a way. There is nothing left for us to mourn. The part of our lives that gets captured as value by capital was never “ours” to begin with. What we lose to capital, we encounter only when it returns to confront us as an alien thing. The progress of capitalism, then, is to “convert” all domains of social life into commodities, where a market logic reigns over what previously had been fraught with social meaning: health care, education, sex, religion.

This is where Phillip’s theoretical aversion to mourning returns to undermine his argument. Klein lets us see how the experiences of exploitation and alienation in infancy require antagonisms to be figured as attacks by a hostile other rather than mourned as part of our own being. Our losses take the form of “bad objects” that have nothing to do with us. If carried over into an analysis of capitalism, Klein’s work suggests that what we have to mourn is what has been usurped by capital only to be proclaimed as its own unbound power.

What mourning has in common with conversion is that both are disguised forms of ongoing attachment. Phillips does not trust either because they turn loss into something like its opposite, the persistence in secret of what is officially given up. But there exists another picture of loss, one that Freud knew well. It is hiding in plain sight in Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Unlike nearly every other classical tragedy, all of the “bad” things have happened already happened to Oedipus long before the play starts. He has murdered his father and married his mother, but feels neither grief nor guilt, unaware of what he has done. When the plague afflicts Thebes as a result of his transgressions, he comes to this suffering as an outsider, not as a native son. Oedipus cannot know how his own past is still doing damage in the present. What he mourns at the end of this play is the identification of all this stray damage and blind harm as so many lost parts of the self. He finds his own true being for the first time among the wreckage, as already lost.

Sophocles’ play shows Oedipus hauling in ancient cathexes, making devastating identifications that had been mute or misrecognized before. What he has to mourn is not the sudden tearing away of longstanding attachments, but rather finding this larger sense of his being spread out over deeds and persons that had seemed merely alien. In other words, psychoanalysis might mean that objects can be meaningfully given up only when first converted back into lost parts of ourselves—parts that were never “ours” to begin with.

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