Adam Phillips’ Promises, Promises by Fionn Meade

Part of the Editor's Choice series.

BOMB 76 Summer 2001

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19


Adam Phillips.

Far from the imperium of treatise and consulting room, we dabble in the contingent art of persuasion, the gathering together and trying out of a personal poetics. And soon, lovers, friends, and rivals become targets for our witting dismay. We usher out and away from the mirthless kingdom of theory and system to interest ourselves in what we remember having read, heard, and seen. The British author and clinician Adam Phillips has similarly walked out on any willful theorizing and taken to book reviews and newspaper articles as his “wider arena” from which to write a refashioned psychoanalysis unafraid of contradictions—and with some uncertainty as to its usefulness at all.

Admirably prone to finding both what is resistible and worth celebrating, Phillips ranges in his reading of contemporary culture from anorexia to Pessoa to cloning to the London Blitz to Hart Crane and onward up to 28 entries and nearly 400 pages. Such delicious titles as “Roaring Boy,” “Doing Heads,” and “On Eating, and Preferring Not To” whet the reader’s appetite and set her merrily perusing until her hour is up, unaware of time having passed. Yet simultaneously she may find herself jotting down so many of Phillips’s aphoristic insights that a notebook will have to be enlisted. This unassuming but incisive quality allows for Phillips to impinge upon the self in solitude, to approach what Jane Austen referred to as “my self-consequence,” and to force the reader’s hand. For, in true Emersonian style, Phillips is ultimately interested in the democratic idea of being true to oneself: “Our relationship to ourselves must be inextricable from our relationship with others; but in what sense does one have a relationship with oneself, or with a book, or with its author, or with a tradition?” What if, as in the case of Pessoa, our fidelity accepts and includes multiple devotions (selves)? What release and revelation might we find if we practiced Henry James or recited Freud aloud?

—Fionn Meade

Adam Phillips’s Promises, Promises was published in February by Basic Books.

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Originally published in

BOMB 76, Summer 2001
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