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Where Did the Hatred Go?

Adam Phillips: Criticism without Malice, 6 March 2008

A Scholar’s Tale: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe 
by Geoffrey Hartman.
Fordham, 195 pp., £17.50, October 2007, 978 0 8232 2832 4
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... Hostility tends to make people sound more powerful than they really are. Eliot against the Romantics, Leavis against Milton, Empson against Christianity, Ricks against Theory. By the 1990s, when literary criticism had become even more marginal than it was in its supposed heyday, critics were known mostly for the ferocity of their prejudices. Geoffrey Hartman, though, has never been a critic with animus ...

Newfangled Inner Worlds

Adam Phillips: Malingering, 3 March 2005

Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War 
by Peter Barham.
Yale, 451 pp., £19.99, August 2004, 0 300 10379 4
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... Malingering, the OED tells us, is something originally done by the armed forces: ‘To pretend illness, or to produce or protract illness, in order to escape duty; said esp. of soldiers and sail-ors.’ To avoid conscription (the first usage is recorded in 1820), or to escape the horrors of what the military authorities have referred to since at least the 17th century as ‘engagement’, has always required a certain amount of ingenuity ...

Self-Made Aristocrats

Adam Phillips: The Wittgensteins and Their Money, 4 December 2008

The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War 
by Alexander Waugh.
Bloomsbury, 366 pp., £20, September 2008, 978 0 7475 9185 6
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... Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent’: it’s a notion children pick up quite quickly. It is also, of course, a remark about the limits of what we can use language to do, but Wittgenstein is unusual as a philosopher because he so often writes about the difficulties a child has growing up in a family. His wish to clarify the world as he finds it, his stress on ‘perspicuous representations’ and ‘just that understanding which consists in “seeing connections”’, turns the figure of the philosopher into the kind of child who wants to understand what is going on in his family, as opposed to the child who takes refuge from his family in a fantasy life ...

What is there to lose?

Adam Phillips, 24 May 1990

Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia 
by Julia Kristeva, translated by Leon Roudiez.
Columbia, 300 pp., $33.50, October 1989, 0 231 06706 2
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Surviving trauma: Loss, Literature and Psychoanalysis 
by David Aberbach.
Yale, 192 pp., £16.95, February 1990, 0 300 04557 3
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... The idea that literature, or any other discipline like boxing or song-writing, could modify psychoanalytic theory – that it could be a two-way street – has always been problematic for psychoanalysts. There is, of course, no reason to think a psychoanalyst’s interpretation of a boxing match would necessarily be more revealing than a boxer’s account of a psychoanalytic session ...

Let’s have your story

Adam Phillips: Why do we give reasons?, 25 May 2006

Why? What Happens When People Give Reasons . . . and Why 
by Charles Tilly.
Princeton, 202 pp., £15.95, March 2006, 9780691125213
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... This is a book about the reasons we give and the reason we give them; a book about our behaviour rather than the mysteries of human existence or technology or the universe. For Charles Tilly, people give reasons not ‘because of some universal craving for truth or coherence’ but because they want to confirm, negotiate or repair their relationships ...

Extenuating Circumstances

Adam Phillips: Paul Steinberg, 19 July 2001

Speak You Also: A Survivor’s Reckoning 
by Paul Steinberg, translated by Linda Coverdale.
Allen Lane, 176 pp., £9.99, May 2001, 0 7139 9540 8
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... In Primo Levi’s memoir of Auschwitz If this is a man – written, he says, not ‘to formulate new accusations … rather, to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind’ – there is an account that is a kind of accusation of a man Levi calls Henri. There are several character sketches of his fellow inmates, but the two pages on Henri are unusually troubled ...

A Little Bit of Showing Off

Adam Phillips: Isherwood’s 1960s, 6 January 2011

The Sixties: Diaries 1960-69 
by Christopher Isherwood, edited by Katherine Bucknell.
Chatto, 756 pp., £30, November 2010, 978 0 7011 6940 4
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... This is a period without glamour,’ Isherwood writes in a diary entry for 18 May 1962, apropos his lover Don Bachardy’s birthday. ‘He blames me because his birthday isn’t marvellous, and I would blame him under the same circumstances.’ Isherwood feared these times without glamour – if they were without glamour – because he was about to be in his sixties and on this particular day Bachardy had turned 28 ...

My Own Ghost

Adam Phillips: John Banville’s Great Unanswerables, 4 August 2005

The Sea 
by John Banville.
Picador, 264 pp., £16.99, June 2005, 0 330 48328 5
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... Just as the pearl is the oyster’s affliction,’ Flaubert wrote in a letter in 1852, ‘so style is perhaps the discharge from a deeper wound.’ It is an arresting image, not because it was news then that the artist was in some way a wounded soul – someone whose suffering was the source and inspiration of his art – but because we would expect the wound to surface in the writing in the form of ideas or preoccupations rather than as sentence structure or rhythm or verbal mannerism ...

Getting Even

Adam Phillips, 19 September 1996

Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon 
by John Kerrigan.
Oxford, 404 pp., £40, April 1996, 0 19 812186 5
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Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? 
by A.D. Nuttall.
Oxford, 110 pp., £20, June 1996, 0 19 818371 2
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... of tragic violence. What the world must not forget is that, in Act VI of the nuclear drama, when Adam begins life again, he will ride into a sunrise swathed in radioactive dust, through fields where sheep may not safely graze. In Kerrigan’s paradise relost there will be no then. The language of nuclear deterrence –‘the fig-leaf of ...


Adam Phillips: Christopher Ricks, 22 July 2010

True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht and Robert Lowell under the Sign of Eliot and Pound 
by Christopher Ricks.
Yale, 258 pp., £16.99, February 2010, 978 0 300 13429 2
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... about the language we started with, and what happened to it. Our words have a prior innocence; Adam and Eve meant what they said, and after the Fall they didn’t. The first language was innocent because there was nothing to be duplicitous about; there was no interpretation because there was nothing to interpret. This ‘play’, as Ricks called it, the ...

Making a mess

Adam Phillips, 2 February 1989

Mother, Madonna, Whore: The Idealisation and Denigration of Motherhood 
by Estela Welldon.
Free Association, 179 pp., £11.95, November 1988, 1 85343 039 0
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... It is a paradox of some interest that though psychoanalysis was, from the beginning, about the relationship between justice and love, there is no explicit description in Freud’s work of what constitutes a good life. And this is one of the many things that distinguish him from his followers and critics. It was also, of course, part of Freud’s disingenuous rationalism to assert that psychoanalysis could never be any kind of weltanschauung, that it was exempt from traditional moral questions like whether virtue can be taught, or whether we need to know what we are doing in order to be good ...

You have to be educated to be educated

Adam Phillips, 3 April 1997

The Scientific Revolution 
by Steven Shapin.
Chicago, 218 pp., £15.95, December 1996, 0 226 75020 5
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... For the great majority of people, believing in the truths of science is unavoidably an act of faith. Most of us neither witness the successful experiments nor would be able to understand them if we did. So we put an extraordinary amount of trust in things we know virtually nothing about (very few people interrogate their anaesthetists). The reason there are ‘popular science’ books is that work has to be done to make science popular ...

Commanded to Mourn

Adam Phillips: Mourning, 18 February 1999

by Leon Wieseltier.
Knopf, 585 pp., $27.50, September 1998, 0 375 40389 2
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... Other people’s mourning – like other people’s sexuality and other people’s religions – is something one has to have a special reason to be interested in. So to write a book, as Leon Wieseltier has done, about the mourning of his father is asking a lot (and to write a book of 585 pages is asking even more). One of the ironies of the so-called mourning process is that it tends to make people even more self-absorbed than they usually are; in need of accomplices, but baffled about what they want from them ...

How to be Viennese

Adam Phillips, 5 March 1987

Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist 
by Edward Timms.
Yale, 468 pp., £20, October 1986, 0 300 03611 6
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Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half-Truths: Selected Aphorisms of Karl Kraus 
translated by Harry Zohn.
Carcanet, 128 pp., £3.94, May 1986, 0 85635 580 1
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... In Fin de Siècle Vienna, politics had become the least convincing of the performing arts. Life, Kraus wrote, had become an effort that deserved a better cause. By the turn of the century, it was not politicians but actors, painters, writers and musicians who had captured the imagination of the upper-middle classes. As the Hapsburg Empire disintegrated, it seemed to Kraus that life in Vienna was no longer imitating art: it was parodying it ...

Having it both Ways

Adam Phillips, 5 November 1992

Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety 
by Marjorie Garber.
Routledge, 443 pp., £25, May 1992, 0 415 90072 7
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... Describing the two sexes as opposite or complementary, rather than useful to each other for certain things but not for others, promotes the misleading idea that we are all in search of completion. Bewitched by the notion of being complete, we become obsessed by notions of sameness and difference, by thoughts of what to include and what to reject in order to keep ourselves whole ...

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