sat 02/07/2022

theartsdesk Q&A: Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips

theartsdesk Q&A: Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips

The leading psychoanalyst talks fashion, therapy and about becoming an art curator

Born in 1954, Adam Phillips is a leading psychoanalyst, literary critic and author. For 17 years he worked as a child psychotherapist in the NHS before moving into private practice to work with adults. As well as being a self-confessed "sceptical" psychoanalyst, he is also known as something of "the literati's analyst of choice". His many, often playfully titled books have included The Art of Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (1993); On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life (1995); and On Kindness (with Barbara Taylor, 2009). In 2006 he edited the New Penguin edition of the Sigmund Freud Reader. In collaboration with Artangel, and partner and fashion curator Judith Clark, he has co-curated The Concise Dictionary of Dress, an evocative art installation that "redescribes dress in terms of anxiety, wish and desire". He lives with Clark in Notting Hill, London.

Fisun Güner: Why The Concise Dictionary of Dress?

ADAM PHILLIPS: Judith and I both had the idea for it. We wanted it to partly be about the notion of captions and partly about what needed to be said about objects, so the original idea was to call it “Words of Clothes”. Then we became more interested in classification and storage. The Dictionary... seemed obvious, and I’ve always been interested in dictionaries, and it seemed a very interesting idea to me to write an unconventional kind of dictionary. I wanted to look at them as a kind of genre, to see in what sense dictionaries curated words, in the way that dress might be curated, and in what sense they stored words. But the real truth, of course, is that things come out in the making - I don’t sit there with all these ideas and then write them down. They appear as I write them.

So are you familiar with the history of dictionaries?

I know a bit about it, yes, though I’m not scholarly. I’m not interested in reading like that, but over the years I’ve read bits and pieces about dictionaries and I read dictionaries sometimes.

Have you always read dictionaries?

No, I haven’t. 

You wrote an essay recently on excess and why we’re so drawn to it. Fashion is a celebration of excess and you could argue that it’s a celebration of a kind of hedonism. But dictionaries are the opposite of excess, in that they pin down and confine.

Yes, they’re about limits. But I don’t know if fashion is as hedonistic as it looks and I don’t mean by that that there isn’t a huge amount of pleasure in it. Hedonism is a cover story for it being far more interesting than that. And one of the things the exhibition is about, and I say this in the essay, is that it says fashion designers are at their best as kinds of historians: they’re very knowledgeable, either tacitly or explicitly, about the history of dress, and they incorporate things from the past into their clothes. But, of course, fashion is also about pleasure, it is about excess, and so is language in a way. There are parallels - and this may sound terribly banal - between clothes as a language and words as a language, and that’s also an idea that’s explored in the exhibition. So, in one sense “fashion is fun”, but like a lot of so-called fun it’s doing a lot of other things, too.

I suppose both can obfuscate, in the way that fashion presents an armour and so does language

Exactly. They’re both languages. They’re both ways of saying things and not ends in themselves.

I really like this quote from the catalogue essay you wrote for the exhibition. “The reason that people are disdainful of fashion is that they fear that many of the things they value most in their lives may be more like fashion than anything else.” Does that really strike you as true?

Yes, it does. Growing up depends on continuity. In order to become the adults that we are sitting in this room there have been some continuities in our lives. So, for example, no child would want to think that its parents are transient. Indeed, children depend upon a quasi-magical belief that their parents won’t die, that they will, in a certain sense, see them through. One of the disjunctions between childhood and adulthood is that when you become an adult your attachments to other people are based on the knowledge that you don’t know how long they’ll last. Whereas we begin as children with the wishful belief that our parents will last. So there’s a disjunction and fashion highlights it.

Fashion really highlights the way in which things we love pass and are transient and it also highlights how we always want the next best thing. So it exposes something about the way we desire and that I think is very, very interesting. There’s a fear that lots of the things that matter most to people, that they previously thought mattered most because they lasted, may actually matter most to them for more interesting reasons than the fact that they last. Fashion forces us to look at why things, very intensely and for very short periods of time, might matter to us. And I think it’s very interesting how opinion divides about fashion, that some people are straightforwardly and wholeheartedly into it and love it and are intrigued by it. And then there’s a sort of high-culture end of this, which is either rather disdainful of it - as if there’s something superficial about being interested in it - or they want to incorporate it in academic study.

Or perhaps one of the real reasons that people fear or dislike fashion is that “fashion people” are kind of alarming and "exotic". There’s nothing reassuring about fashion because the people who belong to that world belong to a very exclusive club and the rules keep changing

I think it’s inevitable in this culture, which is partly based on envy, that people involved in fashion, from the outside, are so embroiled in capitalism in one sense. Like bankers, they become sort of symbols of what is supposedly wrong with the world as it is at the moment. My guess is that people in fashion are rather like accountants and psychoanalysts and lawyers and judges - they’re very varied and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what they’re like without knowing them. It also may be true that people go into fashion from a huge diversity of motives. But again I think there’s an understandable fear of glamour. And the fear of glamour is to do with the fear of what it conceals.

I think people in fashion, people who are designers, say, are often the ones to, publicly at least, dissociate themselves from the industry: you hear them say how it's other people in the industry who are shallow, not them. For instance, there was a lot of talk when Alexander McQueen died that he was not “a typical fashion person”, that he was an artist

People want to locate shallowness somewhere, don’t they? The shallow must be somewhere else. And similarly the distinction of fashion and art, as if artists are the real thing, of which fashion people are some poor imitation. Whereas it seems to me that these are not very useful or interesting ways of looking at things. One of the things we try to do in this exhibition, is to suggest that fashion might be more interesting than it looks. It’s not an attempt to say, “Isn’t fashion wonderful if you look at it this way.” It’s much more a way of saying that one of the things that fashion designers are, are historians. They’re conserving things from the past. But, of course, things from the past have a very short life sometimes.

Was it Artangel who approached you?

Artangel approached me in the first instance about whether there was something I would like to do. Judith and I had been talking about this project for some time and so it seemed to fit with the kind of thing Artangel did.

So how long was it in the making?

Oh years. Years from Judith and I first discussing it as a possibility. When we discussed it to begin with there was no obvious way in which it could become an exhibition. Then Artangel approached me and we started meeting with Michael Morris [Artangel director]. He was really important in this collaboration, and it was through talking with him for at least two years that it eventually came to be what it is. So it had a long period of coming together.

I’m amazed that they ever manage to get anything off the ground. Artangel projects often seem to take years

You have to have such a belief in the future. It’s a wonderfully optimistic thing.

Your own writing has been described as ludic and elusive and intellectually slippery, so the opposite of a dictionary. Do you think your writing or writing style defines who you are?

It defines me as a writer. It seems to me that it’s very hard to make links, really, between the way someone writes and the way they are in the world, with their friends, family. And you can only write in the way you write. So for me, writing is an opportunity - I didn’t think of this consciously, but it seems to be true retrospectively - to perform oneself in a certain way. But like everyone who’s a writer I don’t really get to choose my words, I mean to some extent I do, but the writing I do feels like automatic writing. I sit down, it writes itself.

Is that how you describe the process?

Pretty much, yes. It’s mostly automatic writing and then I chip in with a few suggestions.

You’re very lucky

Yes, it’s very easy. That’s the point about it. It’s extremely easy when you can do it, and when you can’t do it’s impossible. And I love writing, it’s a pleasure. I only do it because it’s a pleasure.

But it must have taken a few years to feel comfortable with that style of writing

Yes, and you have to keep doing it. But I presume you keep doing it because you enjoy it, and that’s true for me. Because I can never earn my living as a writer, which has freed me in a way just to go on writing in the way that I wanted to.

Yes, but you must also be incredibly disciplined

I know it looks like that, but it doesn’t feel like that.

A reviewer said he always reads your books twice in order to get what you were saying and even then he isn't sure what you were saying. It’s as if you’re framing a series of propositions but whatever is going on is kind of outside this frame

That’s not exactly the intention, but I’m certainly aware of the fact I want people to enjoy the experience of reading. I don’t want them to come out of it knowing what I think about X or knowing my theory of Y. I want people to have their own thoughts in the reading, so for me it’s a success when people say, “I really enjoyed this, but I’ve no idea what it was about,” not because I want to mystify them but because they’ve had an experience in the reading that they felt was worth having. I want to write sentences that I really like, that seem to me to be interesting. And if they engage with other people, that is wonderful. I don’t want to inform you of something by reading the book, but you might have your own thoughts while you read it and that would be good. And the exhibition’s not dissimilar, in that the exhibition plays off the relationship between what’s evocative and what’s informative. And I think I’m more interested in things that are evocative than things that are informative.

Did you and Judith decide together what objects were going to appear in the exhibition?

The installations are very much her work. We discussed what words we might use and I did the definitions. And then she used the definitions as prompts, so not remotely like instructions, because my words aren’t instructive. But she used them as an evocative prompt, to see what installations she felt would be pertinent and interesting,

I haven’t seen the objects yet, but the press release has on it a selection of images, and many of these are French 18th-century objets d'art– it’s like Madame Pompadour’s cabinet of curios

What’s difficult about this is, of course, that you can’t see the objects until you see them. Not that I want to mystify this, but there’s got to be an element of surprise about it and the unexpected. When you see them you will see - and I’ve only seen four of the installations myself so far - that they are very much combinations, because objects from different periods and of different materials are combined. They are not fixed to one century, but there are things of the 18th century in it. They come, I presume, from Judith’s repertoire of images.

Is precision important to you?

Yes, very important. But you know the thing that Oscar Wilde said about not wanting to fall into careless habits of accuracy? I think that the trouble with precision and accuracy and scrupulousness is that they become conventionalised very quickly. It as though we forget that these are fantasies of rigour, if you see what I mean. People’s impressions of each other can be very, very precise, while also vague. Dreams are very precise, in the meanings they can generate, but they can be very all-over-the-place and bizarre and surreal.

I feel ambivalent about psychoanalysis

You’ve been labelled a sceptical psychoanalyst. What does it mean to be a sceptical psychoanalyst?

It means something very simple, in a way. I love psychoanalysis and I’m very interested in it, but it’s not a religion. And by that I mean, it’s not something about which one should have unquestioning faith. One of the things Freud makes fundamental is the idea that we are ambivalent animals, which means that we love and we hate, so wherever we hate, we love and vice versa. Given that’s true, it’s very odd that psychoanalysts don’t admit to being ambivalent about psychoanalysis. Well, I feel ambivalent about psychoanalysis. There are lots of things I love and value about it, but I have doubts about it. And it seems to me that both things need to be kept in play for it to be valuable. Otherwise it becomes a cult, and it should be the opposite, the antidote to a cult.

That’s interesting you should say that because I did read someone who did a profile of you describe you as a figure who attracts a cultish following - that you excite a kind of dedicated devotion. A bit like a Pied Piper figure

I think there are several things in that statement. One is that people in this culture are very ambivalent about psychoanalysts. I think also that in the period in which I have written my books, very few people have also been writing psychoanalytic books that are reviewed in the Sunday papers. So it’s something to do with popularisation. And it also seems to me that it’s inevitable that if you do anything at all forceful people will either love it or hate it or both. And I write books for the people who love the books and for people who hate them. It’s not a cultic thing. And I don’t tremendously mind, beyond a certain circle of my friends or peers, what people think about the books, but it does matter to me that people are engaged by them. I do find it interesting and amusing that people use these kinds of words about me when they’ve never met me.

They don’t know you, but I suppose what this writer was trying to suggest is that a kind of cult has grown around you, personally, rather than the ideas you discuss in the books

Well, if it has I don’t know about it. That’s all I can say. It seems a little excessive.

In psychoanalysis you take things apart and then you put them together and create some kind of story. Is that a good description, or definition, of psychoanalysis?

Yes, though the only thing is that it makes it sound slightly too analytic, too “taking things apart”. It doesn’t take things apart so much as redescribe them and look at them from different points of view, such that new stories can be formed out of them. People’s childhood isn’t “taken apart”, people talk about the things that preoccupy them and a psychoanalyst would redescribe those same things from a different perspective and see what the person makes of that. It’s not indoctrination; it’s a collaborative retelling of a life story.

It's important that psychoanalysis is realistic

But it has to be a helpful retelling, otherwise the process would be destructive

There are two different things here. The project is that it is useful and helpful, that’s certainly true. But it’s also true that people can have lives in which things have happened to them, or they’ve done things, which are irredeemable. So those things have to be seen as they are. So it’s helpful where it can be, and realistic where it can’t be helpful. But it’s much more important to me that it’s realistic than that it’s helpful.

So you don’t see psychoanalysis as an attempt to achieve a kind of redemptive state?

No, it’s anti-redemptive. It’s anti-redemptive and in a way it’s a critique of all those ideas in the culture. So it’s really not about curing people, it’s about something much more realistic than that.

If it’s not about redemption, would you perhaps describe it as an attempt as some kind of reconciliation?

Not necessarily. It could be that, but then again parents do things to children, and indeed children do things to parents that are unforgivable.

So it’s not about self-forgiveness, either?

No, it’s not. It’s not about anything specific. I don’t want to be too vague about this - those things you mention it can include, other than redemption - but it doesn’t have a purposive intention to make those happen. Forgiveness may come out of psychoanalysis, but it would not be the intention of analysis to create forgiveness in a person, or to make them more forgiving, because it’s a more open-ended exploration than that. The thing is, that you can’t know what will happen as a consequence of entering into psychoanalysis. That’s why analysts simply have to be honest about the sense in which psychoanalysis is a risk. Of course, I value it because I’ve done a lot of it. I’m not selling something that I know to be false or dangerous, but it is risky.

Have you become more sceptical over the years?

No, but I’ve become more aware of the limitations of therapies in general. I still think for some things, and for some people, psychoanalysis is the best thing going. But all the therapies are good for some people.

What type of people is psychoanalysis good for?

There’s not a type.

Well, is it particularly good for articulate people?

No, no, absolutely not. I worked for 17 years in the health service and worked in clinics in the poorest parts of London, where lots of the children I saw had parents with hardly any schooling at all and it’s as effective. It’s an absolute fabrication the idea that psychoanalysis is a sort of middle-class stronghold. All sorts of people gain from being listened to.

Maybe we have this idea because it’s so expensive

But that isn’t true, either, and indeed child psychotherapy was available in the health service, it was free. It’s amazing how powerful being listened to is.

Is working with children easier or harder than working with adults, or does that question not apply?

It does apply, but children are much better at psychoanalysis than adults are, because adults are, by the time they have become adults, much more defensive. They’ve elaborated their defences over a very long period of time. It’s not that children don’t have defences, because they do, but most children have a very strong sense early on of what they’re interested in and what they’re not interested in. And they’re more fun. Children’s capacity for pleasure is far greater than adult’s - not all adults, but children are real Darwinian pleasure-seekers. So it’s much more fun, which isn’t to say it isn’t fun working with adults. But there are more laughs working with children. It’s also, in some ways, more disturbing, because children are also, by the same token, so much more vulnerable.

I believed I could listen to anything, but when I had my own children I found it a lot more painful

So why did you move away from child therapy?

There were several reasons. One was that the bit of the health service I was working in was collapsing. We were being managed by people who had no idea what we were doing, and that was terrible. I also found it much more difficult when I had my own children to listen to the terrible things that happen to children. When I started, in a kind of internal hero myth, I believed I could listen to anything, But when I had my own children I found it a lot more painful.

How many children do you have?

Three. So there was that, and that’s not incidental in this. But it was very, very dismaying for me to leave the health service, because I went into child psychotherapy because I was very interested in it and partly because it was available on the health service. It was a genuinely available therapy. And by the time I left it was a very rundown thing. It was very depressing and disillusioning.

I often talk to a lot of artists who say the same thing, that once they have children their work changes profoundly, as if there’s a rupture: before children and after. But still, you continue to be very productive in many areas, as a writer and with your day job, and now in the art world. Do you ever suffer from that writer’s disease of procrastination?

I don’t experience myself as disciplined – I’m not involving myself in some regime to make myself do things. I can only write when I can write. Of course, I do psychoanalysis in a disciplined way: people come on the hour, it lasts a certain amount of time, it requires a certain skill. But I write because it’s a pleasure. I have got an appetite for it, so in that sense there’s an ease about it. I find doing psychoanalysis much harder than writing. I think that if I found writing hard I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t have the tenaciousness.

Was it fun working with someone you live with and have an intimate relationship with?

I thought it wouldn’t be, but, yes, it was actually a lot of fun.

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