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I feel guilty

Adam Phillips, 11 March 1993

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Further Psychoanalytic Explorations 
by Nina Coltart.
Free Association, 200 pp., £15.95, December 1992, 1 85343 186 9
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The Damned and the Elect 
by Friedrich Ohly, translated by Linda Archibald.
Cambridge, 211 pp., £30, September 1992, 0 521 38250 5
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... When Freud insisted that psychoanalysis had nothing to do with ethical enquiry, was not in the business of making moral worlds or of providing a new Weltanschauung, he was trying to dissociate himself from the Judaism of his forefathers, and trying to dissociate psychoanalysis from any connection with religion (or mysticism). If psychoanalysis was seen to be compatible with traditional religious belief it would lose both its scientific credibility and its apparent originality ...

Hauteur

Adam Phillips: ‘Paranoid Modernism’, 22 May 2003

The Short Sharp Life of T.E. Hulme 
by Robert Ferguson.
Allen Lane, 314 pp., £20, November 2002, 0 7139 9490 8
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Paranoid Modernism: Literary Experiment, Psychosis and the Professionalisation of English Society 
by David Trotter.
Oxford, 358 pp., £35, September 2001, 0 19 818755 6
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... What is now called trauma theory informs contemporary biography as much as it does the academic practice of literary history. Belief in trauma as a kind of agency, as a cultural force – in events as the real heroes and heroines in life stories – turns up historically when people are beginning to lose faith in God and character and cause and effect ...

Remember me

Adam Phillips: Bret Easton Ellis, 1 December 2005

Lunar Park 
by Bret Easton Ellis.
Picador, 308 pp., £16.99, October 2005, 0 330 43953 7
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... Bret Easton Ellis has always been interested in the ways in which people don’t pay attention, and in the cost of attention when it is paid. In the comédie humaine he has been writing since 1985, when his first novel, Less than Zero, was published, his characters, who recur throughout the books, are as torpid and enervated as Balzac’s are driven and determined ...

Shaky Ground

Adam Phillips: Autism and Madness, 23 February 2012

Understanding Autism: Parents, Doctors and the History of a Disorder 
by Chloe Silverman.
Princeton, 360 pp., £24.95, November 2011, 978 0 691 15046 8
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What Is Madness? 
by Darian Leader.
Hamish Hamilton, 359 pp., £20, October 2011, 978 0 241 14488 6
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... Descriptions of mental illness depend on what a society regards as a desirable form of exchange. Behaviour is seen as a symptom (or a crime) rather than a foible or a talent when things deemed to be essential – sex, words, money – are being exchanged in a particularly disturbing way, or not being exchanged at all. Sex with children is unequivocally wrong, and possibly an illness, while exchanging sex for money is merely controversial ...

Am I a spaceman?

Adam Phillips: Wilhelm Reich, 20 October 2011

Adventures in the Orgasmatron: Wilhelm Reich and the Invention of Sex 
by Christopher Turner.
Fourth Estate, 532 pp., £25, August 2011, 978 0 00 718157 5
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... In a Freud Anniversary Lecture given in New York in 1968, Anna Freud looked back with nostalgia on the early days of psychoanalysis. ‘When we scrutinise the personalities who, by self-selection, became the first generation of psychoanalysts,’ she said, we are left in no doubt about their characteristics. They were the unconventional ones, the doubters, those who were dissatisfied with the limitations imposed on knowledge; also among them were the odd ones, the dreamers, and those who knew neurotic suffering from their own experience ...

To Be or Knot to Be

Adam Phillips, 10 October 2013

The Hamlet Doctrine 
by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster.
Verso, 269 pp., £14.99, September 2013, 978 1 78168 256 2
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... In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche gives what Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster call a ‘fascinating short interpretation’ of Hamlet, from which they take their title. They don’t think much of the book up to that point: it’s when he gets to Hamlet, they argue, that Nietzsche wakes up. This isn’t a view everyone would share, but it’s of a piece with the many assured judgments they make about Hamlet in the play with the most canonically self-doubting hero ...

I fret and fret

Adam Phillips: Edward Thomas, 5 November 2015

Edward Thomas: From Adelstrop to Arras 
by Jean Moorcroft Wilson.
Bloomsbury, 480 pp., £25, May 2015, 978 1 4081 8713 5
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... Edward Thomas​ believed that up to about the age of four what he called ‘a sweet darkness’ enfolded him ‘with a faint blessing’. It was, though, a darkness and the blessing was faint. ‘From an early age’, Jean Moorcroft Wilson writes, Thomas ‘felt cursed by a self-consciousness he believed the chief cause of his later problems and depression ...

Who’d want to be a man?

Adam Phillips: A New Model of Sexuality, 19 June 2008

Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire 
by Lisa Diamond.
Harvard, 333 pp., £18.95, March 2008, 978 0 674 02624 7
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... The scientific study of sexuality – unsurprisingly, perhaps, a flourishing academic field – aims to help us sort out what we might want from what we can have. Given how widespread sexual curiosity tends to be, it’s always interesting to see what science can get up to when it researches sex; what calling this particular area of research ‘scientific’ adds to, or takes away from, this common pursuit ...

Plumage and Empire

Adam Phillips: This is an Ex-Parrot, 31 October 2002

Spix’s Macaw: The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird 
by Tony Juniper.
Fourth Estate, 296 pp., £16.99, September 2002, 1 84115 650 7
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... Any form represented by few individuals,’ Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, ‘will, during fluctuations in the seasons or in the number of its enemies, run a good chance of utter extinction.’ That both these words need qualifying should give us pause. Darwin could see the appeal of extinction; or rather, something about extinction appealed to him ...

Someone Else

Adam Phillips: Paul Muldoon, 4 January 2007

The End of the Poem: Oxford Lectures on Poetry 
by Paul Muldoon.
Faber, 406 pp., £25, October 2006, 0 571 22740 6
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Horse Latitudes 
by Paul Muldoon.
Faber, 107 pp., £14.99, October 2006, 0 571 23234 5
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... Paul Muldoon excluded himself from Contemporary Irish Poetry, his 1986 Faber anthology, but he included a poem by Seamus Heaney that was dedicated to him. We don’t of course know why the poem was dedicated to him, or indeed whether it is in any sense about him. It is a suggestive poem about what the living can get from the dead: Widgeon For Paul Muldoon It had been badly shot ...

Cloud Cover

Adam Phillips, 16 October 1997

Night Train 
by Martin Amis.
Cape, 149 pp., £10.99, October 1997, 0 224 05018 4
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... what there might be to apologise for. In Venus Envy, the most riveting critique of Amis’s style, Adam Mars-Jones mentions the pertinent fact that in his Introduction to Einstein’s Monsters Amis ‘makes no reference ... to the most single-minded demonstration of nuclear protest, the Peace Camp at Greenham Common, or the larger movement of which it is ...

Getting Ready to Exist

Adam Phillips, 17 July 1997

A Centenary Pessoa 
edited by Eugénio Lisboa and L.C. Taylor.
Carcanet, 335 pp., £25, May 1995, 9780856359361
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The Keeper of Sheep 
by Fernando Pessoa, translated by Edwin Honig and Susan Brown.
Sheep Meadow, 135 pp., $12.95, September 1997, 1 878818 45 7
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The Book of Disquietude 
by Fernando Pessoa, translated by Richard Zenith.
Carcanet, 323 pp., £9.95, January 1997, 1 85754 301 7
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... True originality,’ Cocteau, Pessoa’s contemporary, wrote, ‘consists in trying to behave like everybody else without succeeding.’ It was once characteristically modern to idealise originality, and to conceive of it as a form of failure. The fittest as those who didn’t fit. If there is nothing more compliant now than the wish to be original – to find one’s own voice etc – it is also assumed that originality and success can, and should, go together ...

You call that a breakfast?

Adam Phillips, 17 February 2000

Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters 
by Ted Cohen.
Chicago, 99 pp., £10.50, November 1999, 0 226 11230 6
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... As there’s nothing you can do to a joke to make it funny, except tell it well, the telling of jokes can be a testing time for everyone involved. And once they’ve been told we rarely have conversations about whether or not they have worked. Good art makes us think and talk and write; good jokes just amuse us. Either we get them or we don’t; and when jokes are interpreted they begin to sound like bad jokes ...

Roaring Boy

Adam Phillips: Hart Crane, 30 September 1999

The Broken Tower: A Life of Hart Crane 
by Paul Mariani.
Norton, 492 pp., $35, April 1999, 0 393 04726 1
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O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane 
edited by Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber.
Four Walls Eight Windows, 562 pp., $35, July 1997, 0 941423 18 2
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... In so far as there was a shared response to Hart Crane’s poetry after his suicide in 1932, it took the form of invidious comparisons. ‘Crane had the sensibility typical of Baudelaire,’ R.P. Blackmur wrote in 1935, ‘and so misunderstood himself that he attempted to write The Bridge as if he had the sensibility typical of Whitman.’ Dylan Thomas’s poems, Randall Jarrell wrote in 1940, ‘often mean much less than Crane’s – but when you consider Crane’s meanings this is not altogether a disadvantage ...

Provocation

Adam Phillips, 24 August 1995

Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls 
by Denis Donoghue.
Knopf, 364 pp., $27.50, May 1995, 0 679 43753 3
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... In a contemporary review of The Renaissance in the Pall Mall Gazette, the critic Sidney Colvin wrote that ‘the book is not one for any beginner to turn to in search of “information”.’ ‘Information’ was in inverted commas not because there were no facts or respectable opinions in the book, but because Pater did not seem to believe in information, as it was customarily understood in criticism of the arts ...

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