I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Late in June, I interviewed British psychoanalyst and prolific essayist Adam Phillips about his new collection of essays, On Balance (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which ranges over fundamentalism, W. H. Auden, sleep, and the idea of excess. Previous books have unshelled topics such as kindness, democracy, monogamy, and children, and each has, in its own way, developed an increasingly distinctive Phillipsian style. It’s a style to be read, and reread, I find, usually in single sittings—and it echoes and evokes itself between each essay, each collection, and even in his recent exhibition on fashion, co-curated with his partner, Judith Clark.
Interviews with Phillips rarely hew to single topics or follow the trammels of book promotion. Interviewing Phillips must be somewhat like interviewing composer Elliott Carter—bewilderingly, although never ungenerously, wide-ranging and allusive. In their intensity and cleansing properties, interviews with him are the interviewer’s version of a temazcal (a sweat lodge). In preparation, I listened to the soundtrack to Nicholas Roeg’s thriller of psychological boundaries and fractures, Performance, set partly in Powis Square, in the same Notting Hill neighborhood where Phillips has his consulting room.
Phillips, whose early professional years were focused on child psychotherapy, now practices as a psychoanalyst and counts many major writers among his past and perhaps present clients. It’s not surprising. Although his profession requires a certain obtuse reticence, as an interviewee he speaks quickly and somehow effortlessly, delivering rich insights in perfectly formed paragraphs. Seated opposite his chair, on a firm couch, surrounded by thousands of books, in the airy room he works in, one senses a finely honed environment for focus and concentration. Putting forward tightly folded questions, listening as he unfolds his responses in sentences, it’s not difficult to see why he likes Pierre Boulez—his thoughts emerge pli selon pli .
Attempting to edit down what Phillips says, when he is at his most dense and thought-provoking, is not unlike sculpting with lava—he is lapidary in the truest sense, and his thoughts fill his words often to their fullest volume.
Sameer Padania Let’s start with how your new book, On Balance, has come together.
Adam Phillips I prefer writing essays rather than books. Over a period of time I’m invited to give various nonspecific talks and lectures. Nobody says to me, Will you talk about X? That tends to crystallize things that I’ve been preoccupied by, and a piece fairly quickly writes itself once that happens.
I don’t think too much about whether it all hangs together. I just write things that engage me, and then, when they get collected into a book like this, I trust that certain preoccupations will work themselves through. Otherwise, it becomes too tendentious and too focused and I don’t want that to be the case. When I read through the essays, I’ll keep the ones that I do still think are good and then I’ll think of what sort of order they might go in. The writing of the book, in a way, is putting them in an order.
In reading the book over, different things emerge at different times, but clearly one of the themes of the book is excess—that seemed to turn up in lots of different places. The idea for the title of On Balance, I don’t know how it came to me. I had read the Auden piece again, “Forms of Inattention,” where there’s that bit at the end about the tightrope walker. Ideas of composure or equanimity or balance or integration—all those words that have something to do with a kind of harmony—are at the heart of psychoanalysis in what it sets itself against, and also relate to what I seem to be preoccupied by.
I rely on the unconscious work of these things. When I sit down to write, I have a lot to write, but beforehand, I don’t. I’m not full of ideas. Writing is the way I think.
SP How much revision is there as you go along?
AP Very little. I admire people who struggle to articulate things, but I’m not one of those people—for me it’s more like automatic writing.
SP You’ve contrasted your writing with your psychoanalytic practice. What is the relationship between the two?
AP I really don’t know. All I do know is that I do psychoanalysis four days a week and I write one day a week, in the middle. I know that the conversations I have with people have a very powerful effect on me. Psychoanalysis is really difficult; writing is not, for me.
In psychoanalysis, I’m dealing with resistances, often with very intractable things. In a way, the connection between the two things works by being indiscernible, by not being articulated or thought about very much. As you may have noticed, I don’t use clinical vignettes, because I think psychoanalysis is private. So when I do use them, either they’re minimal, anonymous, or I make them up. And I don’t find myself interested in topics, exactly. I’m more interested in the sentences, as they unfold, that are nominally about something.
I was very wary of the way in which the psychoanalytic profession secluded itself, made itself rather mandarin and elitist. So I wanted to be seen to be part of the cultural conversation, something not mysterious—I mean, life is mysterious—that in and of itself is a social practice that can be talked about.
SP Over time your writing has become more political, more pointed. Do you have hope for an impact in the cultural conversation or even public policy? Is there something that you’d like your books to do or change?
AP I’ve always been embarrassed by the self-importance of psychoanalysts talking about the world as if they were going to have some major influence on it. Back when I was trained, my supervisor said to me, completely seriously, “If only they had child psychotherapy in Northern Ireland, their troubles would have been over years ago.” Now, for me, this represents the absurdity and grandiosity of psychoanalysis. The people who actually have some effect on public opinion are business people and journalists, with politicians somewhere in the middle of those. I can only seriously ironize myself in relation to this. I think of the books as more like dream work than propaganda.
I don’t write for psychoanalysts but for people who are interested in a whole range of things. My wish, if I could design it, is that my books would in some indiscernible way evoke something in those who come across them. People wouldn’t come away thinking, Oh, Phillips’s theory of X is X. The reading experience would have a nonprogrammatic effect, but an effect.
SP Paul Holdengräber’s interview with you at the New York Public Library began with his observation that he could never actually remember anything that you write. Maybe it was a deliberate provocation, but that’s how I experience a lot of your work.
AP That’s the reading experience I’ve always loved. Certainly, when people say to me, as they often have done, “I can’t remember anything afterward,” I think, Great, that’s the point! The work is not there to be repeated or identified with, but something works on you.
SP The only analogy that I can think of to describe your most dense writing is “On Exactitude in Science,” the Jorge Luis Borges short story of the map that matches in size the territory it depicts. It can’t be practically reduced or summarized, only replicated or reworked …
AP I often feel that I’m reinventing the wheel. A lot of my writing is obvious; I don’t feel when I read it that it’s amazingly original. My writing is very reiterative, and it feels like that because things are being worked out, not resolved. They are going on being thought about, and I often don’t know what they are at the time. All I know is that when I read the writing back to myself, it has to sound good to me, like a song may sound good to you.
SP Can you describe the process of putting things in an order that builds it as a book rather than a collection of essays?
AP The dilemma is that it is a miscellany, on the one hand, but it also has things running through it. I don’t want it to be contrived in the way it is ordered, but I want it to be at least possible for somebody to perceive there is some structure in it. I want there to be a sufficient variety of tones, so people don’t get locked into a certain density of text. So it opens with “Five Short Talks on Excess,” the radio pieces. And then some of the pieces on fundamentalism are accessible and some are not. Then two-thirds into the book there’s something very difficult, and by that I simply mean more psychoanalytic. When you read it did you feel like there was some kind of structure to it?
SP Yeah, the radio pieces were a great tonal opening, but I may be a prejudiced reader. I’ve heard you on the radio, so I already had your voice in my head, quite literally.
There was one piece that I couldn’t see how it fit in: “Sleeping It Off,” the very short, sharp piece on sleep that appeared originally in the Threepenny Review. It felt like a speed bump in the book. It comes after the essay “On What Is Fundamental.” I found that shift jarring; I still haven’t quite worked out why.
AP Well, that was the one piece I didn’t know where to put. I couldn’t find a place where it seemed to work, so I just thought I’d stick it in there.
SP That’s reassuring. (laughter) I’d like to delve into the idea of excess in terms of information, and its contrast with scarcity or a kind of privation. We live in a world where, for example, 24 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. If that’s not excess and superabundance, I don’t know what is. To what extent do you react to that world, or pull yourself away from it?
AP I’m not on the Internet. I don’t have an email address. My partner does, though, so it’s not like there’s none of it. And I’ve got children who are really within the culture. Inevitably it’s a generational thing; I’ve increasingly wanted less communication rather than more, partly because of my job.
Your question made me think this: if you’ve had a mother, or parents, who have been extremely overstimulating in their demands of you, then this trauma of the available media is precisely your medium. It’s like returning to the scene of the crime. Consciously the thought is, This is all very exciting, which it is, but unconsciously the thought is, Will I be able to survive it? There is this massive demand on you and the question is whether you can do anything with it. I feel, very powerfully, that demand. This might be a slightly mad idea but there is a risk that we’ll have our sensibilities blurred, not simply by compassion fatigue, and so on, but by an overload of stimuli that doesn’t give anybody enough space to develop their own sensibility or discrimination. It’s as though there is a real terror around of people having their own thoughts about things, and so people are being assaulted with simulation. It’s like pornography preempting sexuality.
SP Do you think there is something qualitatively, cognitively different between the way people previously reacted to information and the way people react to newer, more immediate and fluid streams of information?
AP There is a strange, magical idea that you can consume without digesting, that you could eat without swallowing, as though there were no process. Again, a psychoanalytic analogy comes to mind: it’s the difference between a mother who needs to feed her child, and the mother who waits for the child to have an appetite and then feeds it. It’s an absurd cartoon, I agree, but capitalist culture is force-feeding us whether we’re hungry or not. What this means is that we never know when we’re hungry, and we don’t have the space to figure out what it is we want. It’s driving us all mad.
We are encouraged to believe, for example, that there are consensual objects of desire, that every man wants a certain woman. Well, actually, every man doesn’t want that certain woman. The really frightening thing about desire is how idiosyncratic it is. We may desire people whom we might not like, or want, or whom other people might not think beautiful. So idiosyncratic is it that we want to pool this feeling, foreclose it, into consensual objects. The culture is encouraging the belief that there’s more consensus than there in fact is.
SP Talking about liberalism in On Balance, you develop that notion further. If I can paraphrase: liberalism should be a pluralistic ethos that permits and sustains competing or conflicting types of thinking, and that tries to find a way for these to coexist. How far do we live in a system where that is or should be the reality?
AP One of the striking things about liberal cultures is how homogenous they are. You encourage individualism, then what you’ve got is a cult of individualism. There’s an irony built into this problem. The issue for a lot of people—and, again, I’ve got no idea what I’m talking about here—is how much of themselves they have to exclude in order to go on having relationships with people they want to have relationships with. This comes from the culture, and it’s something that Sigmund Freud is speaking up for: there are large parts of ourselves that don’t fit into the available forms, or for which new forms must be found. We can comply and submit, or we can contest things. The Jean-Paul Sartre quote about rebels wanting to keep the world the same so that they can go on rebelling against it—while revolutionaries change the world. Liberalism creates lots of rebels. Yet I’d much rather live in a world in which, even if it’s glib, at least there’s an interest in the idea that people are very different from each other, as well as have a lot in common. I wouldn’t like to lose that idea.
One thing that psychoanalysis could be useful for, though I don’t know how it could do this, is enabling people to bear conflict. It’s like what Robert Frost said about education: we have it so that we can talk to other people without losing our tempers. Well, we might say, we should have education so that we can talk to each other and lose our tempers and not kill them. That would be fine. We need to go one step back, because liberalism is increasingly looking like a utopian project.
SP You talk about having a sense of reality and what an appropriate response to it may or may not be. I see video footage coming from around the world, attesting to the undeniable reality of suffering. More and more mediated suffering is available to us daily in our streams. It’s increasingly becoming part of a lived communication culture. Is this something you’re affected by?
AP Somewhere in his diaries, Franz Kafka says: “You can protect yourself from all the suffering in the world and that’s the one suffering you could have avoided.” That’s the point; there is all this suffering in the world and we know more and more about it. However, what it calls up in us to deal with, at its best, so to speak, is a kind of inured, detached horror. The sadomasochistic solution to this is to find it all incredibly exciting and gripping and to want more and more of it. That is a catastrophe created by a culture that makes suffering and exploitation bearable by making or cultivating a sadomasochistic pleasure.
What’s very difficult is to have a relatively un-evasive relationship to suffering. Were more people to have that, it might mobilize more realistic resources to deal with it. Suffering is intrinsic to life, but some suffering is avoidable. What seems to be pretty devastating is how much given suffering is absolutely there; how much suffering is actually created by us. It isn’t possible to create a world without suffering, but it is possible to make a world with less suffering. Instead, we are being invited to be excitedly horrified.
SP By whom?
AP I don’t know the answer to that. There are simple facts that everybody knows: if someone has a lot of money, it’s because somewhere people are being exploited. The question is: how much genealogy can we bear for our commodities? Take that vase. (Points to a vase.) If we trace its history, we’ll probably find some terrible things have been done to people. We all know this now. How has this been made palatable? Psychoanalysis can be quite illuminating about people’s capacity to make terrible things seem not only good, but wonderful, as a way of not actually thinking about what they are experiencing. There’s a psychic alchemy that goes on in the service of psychic survival. It’s also something that’s very exploitable about us. It’s something worth knowing about; children should be educated about it in school. I believe much more in education than in psychoanalysis—psychoanalysis is only good as part of education.
SP Your essay “On What Is Fundamental” made me think about the relationship between corporate entities and the activists who campaign against them. Particularly in terms of climate change, where there really seems to be a clash of civilizations of some kind, and where there was a misguided adhesion to the idea of balance within journalistic contexts that actually hampered public debate.
AP People need to be taught how to read. In traditional psychoanalytic papers, the authorities are quoted as though what they say is self-evidently true. A vignette is used to illustrate and validate a previously made theoretical problem. It isn’t interpreted or redescribed, it’s simply reiterated. It becomes like a Maoist training camp—you say it 500 times, and then you sort of believe it—rather than thinking that all these cultural objects are available for redescription. It would be very useful for people to be taught that reading and interpreting is a useful thing to do and that part of one’s imagination is the redescription of already existing cultural objects. Those cultural objects could be human rights, or paintings, or poems, a whole range of things. The project is to transform the available materials, not submit to them.
SP Whom do you enjoy reading?
AP So many people, but I’ll tell you who comes to mind straightaway: Wallace Stevens, William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, D. H. Lawrence, W. S. Graham, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. All the people I was educated to admire. I was astounded as an adolescent at how many interesting sentences there were, how these people could write these books. I’m still astounded. It’s as though one of the things I’ve always been doing is looking for good sentences, or voices that I love and like, and there are so many of them. It’s like first there are two parents and then there is a world of people you might desire—the realization that there are pleasures outside the family is a powerful experience. This has gone on being true—the world proliferated in what feels like an infinite way. It’s like what R. P. Blackmur said: what’s added to is the “stock of available reality.” I really am inspired by other people, by talking to people as well as reading books.
SP Are there any contemporary writers who have the same effect on you?
AP There are. Geoffrey Hill, Bret Easton Ellis, John Burnside, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon. Lots of American poets I really love: Louise Glück, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Stephen Dunn. I love American literature. Partly it has to do with the fantasy of being Jewish. I can remember so vividly reading Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer, and hearing Bob Dylan’s voice. It’s as though when I heard and read them I felt that something had been stifled in me, being an English Jew. These writers were talking about things that my family talked about, but also in a similar way: the real rage, hysteria, derangement, and so on. English composure I find baffling. Even though I like Jane Austen, when I read Dostoyevsky I thought, This is more like my family. Now, that could be a wish, but it felt like that.
SP The idea of participation, of somebody having agency within a culture, is pervasive throughout many aspects of the culture that we live in. What do you think participation is?
AP It’s a very interesting question. Developmentally, the question is: what are the preconditions for a child thinking that the world is worth loving, or transforming, or worth engaging with? To want to participate, a child needs to feel that the preconditions are there for being a version of oneself that one values in relation to other people that one values. That depends upon, obviously, the history and the characters of the people in the family. A parent creates the conditions in which the child feels relatively unintimidated, so that he or she can say something or try something out, in the assurance that they will be considered and won’t be belittled or humiliated. For example, as a parent, I can create a situation that is not implicitly demanding compliance so that when I say to my daughter, “Do you want a glass of apple juice or orange juice?” she is free to think, I don’t want either of those things, I want water. The environment says to the child not only “We love you,” which is quite easy to say, but “We’re engaged with the things that engage you. We will back you to some extent and we will go with it a bit.” So, when your five-year-old son says to you, “I want to be an astronaut,” you don’t say, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, you’re five years old! You’ll never be an astronaut.” You explore it, because it’s a possibility.The child’s greatest resource is the character of its parents, not how much money they’ve got or whatever.
I want to enable my children to be sufficiently frightened, that is, in touch with reality, but also to feel that it’s worth engaging with its difficulties. That would be my starting point for this. The question then becomes: how much is family life a good analogy for political social life? That’s the problem.
In a way that’s what my book On Kindness is about. For there to be more kindness in the world would require people making eloquent, persuasive, inspired cases for it, and what’s weird for my generation is the politicians. To live in a culture where the heroes are in the entertainment industry is truly terrible and pointless. How has this come about? Certainly, when I was younger, there were real left-wing heroes, people who inspired you to protect your values and whom you partly aspired to be.
SP And at what point do you think that fractured?
AP In the ’80s. I was a hippie. I believed in “Make love not war,” and still do. Very quickly it was eaten up by capitalism. Who’d want to be a politician now? This will be an absurd generalization, but the risk is that the people who now would want to be politicians are the people who would be disqualified from being really good politicians.
Children are taught in school now how to be competitive. That’s the subject: how to be competitive and how you might use the various subjects in order to be a good competitor. Competition is not intrinsically terrible, but competition as the only game in town is terrible.
SP What might a different system look like?
AP The only reason to go to school, that I can see, is to make friends whom you love and like. If you’re lucky, you find something that really interests you. You’ve got to learn to read and write and basic numeracy and so on, but, other than that, it’s absolutely pointless to teach children things that they’re not interested in. The education system needs to factor that in. I remember one of my daughter’s teachers saying to me, “She only works at the subjects she’s interested in.” I was thinking, Great! That would be the point. You go to school, and teachers offer you the things they think are good, but you choose them. It’s always true that the student chooses the teacher.
SP What do you think the end result of that would be then?
AP I would want a world in which there is less art and better relationships, if those two things are even connected. I’d want it to be clear that the only game in town is improving the quality of people’s relationships. Everything is about group life, and there’s no life without group life, it’s as simple and as complicated as that. Do you have political heroes now?
SP I don’t, no. It’s extremely difficult now for politicians to have anything other than the blandest managerial nature. This relates to the core of your book: people in those types of positions should have the liberty to push beyond boundaries, to be excessive, but there are constraints on how contradictory or dissonant they can be.
AP That’s a very interesting question isn’t it, how complicated can we allow people to be before we stop trusting them. It does seem terrible that there isn’t a political figure that I know of at the moment in the UK whom I really feel inspired and impressed by in the same way that I might wait for a new book of poems by a certain poet to come out, or a piece by someone whom, say, I’d want to read in the newspaper.
SP Who would that be, beyond the political realm?
AP I’ve still got that thing my friends and I had when we were in our late teens waiting for the next record by whomever to come out. I still have that feeling in relation to certain writers, historians, and philosophers: I felt that way about Richard Rorty when he was alive. I feel like that about Stanley Cavell. And John Banville, the novelist.
SP What about other art forms, such as music?
AP I loved, and still love, for some reason more, in a way, the American rock music that I grew up with. I like a lot of classical music too and I used to love reggae. I like some jazz, and also some contemporary classical music. I really like Pierre Boulez’s … explosante-fixe … . I like Steve Reich, John Adams, and also love the Esbjörn Svensson Trio. I loved Miles Davis. But, it was for me very much the generation of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, and The Allman Brothers that has had a powerful effect on me. I’ve still got an appetite to hear new music.
SP What kinds of new music?
AP I went through a period when I had adolescent patients. As they moved from being paid for by their parents, the question of how they might pay would come up. One of the ways they could do it in those days was that every month they would make me a tape of music, so I heard a lot. Some of it I liked, some I didn’t. I like The Walkmen very much. Somebody gave me this Congolese compilation I loved.
SP It’s one of my obsessions, Congolese soukous.
AP It’s astounding isn’t it?
SP One of the things that most resonates for me in On Balance is your writing on the dissonant, disjunctive, essentially random nature of existence. My last question concerns this state of incoherence. A word that is bandied around a lot at the moment is storytelling. It’s applied to branding, marketing, everything. In its wide, popular usage, the word is becoming increasingly incoherent. I literally don’t know what it means anymore. Could you talk a little bit about that?
AP You can see the issue in a current debate in psychoanalysis. One version of psychoanalysis will say that the definition of mental health would be the capacity to tell a coherent narrative. From another psychoanalytic point of view, that would be precisely the problem. I think both things are true. People who have suffered ruptured, violated lives need and want some narrative coherence, but narrative coherence quickly can be a problem when it becomes a refuge from thinking. I agree that the idealization of narrative coherence is a bizarre cultural development. The problem is finding forms of incoherence that are listenable to. Psychoanalysis has tried this with the idea of free association—it can create a context in which incoherence is potentially the best way of talking to somebody.
This is very difficult to do socially, because either it sounds incredibly pretentious, or boring. This is, in a way, why experimental fiction hasn’t worked, though it should and maybe it can in the future. People who were brought up on traditional narratives either can’t read it or have so many ways of dismissing it that they can’t get to it. It’s a shame, because some of it is very interesting.
Somebody’s got to find a way of making a form of incoherence extremely revealing and alluring. It’s a really interesting cultural task—not that we should become better storytellers, because that’s the most boring thing on earth, but let’s become better antistorytellers. There is more to life than the stories we can tell about it. The interesting question is: what’s a culturally sharable form of free association, outside the psychoanalytic setting?
SP And what do you think the answer to that might be?
AP This is where an information culture counts against us. People need to be educated into believing that evocation is more important than information. If we could bear listening to people, without trying to understand what they’re saying, we would get more from them. Effectively, psychoanalysis listens for the incoherencies that are saying more, or something other, than the coherences. It’s got something to do with the musicality of people’s voices and intonations; it’s a form of listening that’s less hypnotized and distracted by their coherences.
Sameer Padania is a London-based journalist with a background in film, new media, and international development. For the last three years, he worked for the human rights organization WITNESS in New York, running the hub, a campaigning human rights video website, prior to which he worked at Panos London for six years to support radio and online journalists in the developing world.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee