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What You Really Want

Adam Phillips: Edmund White, 3 November 2005

My Lives 
by Edmund White.
Bloomsbury, 356 pp., £17.99, September 2005, 0 7475 7522 3
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... It is conventional for people now to have lives rather than a life, but it is not always clear whose lives they are. They can, of course, be claimed – you can call them, as Edmund White does in this autobiography, ‘my lives’ – but there are always counter-claims. What seemed most intimately one’s own can turn out to have been someone else’s all along ...

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 ...

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 ...

Thwarted Closeness

Adam Phillips: Diane Arbus, 26 January 2006

... If it is too often said about Diane Arbus that she photographs freaks, it does at least suggest that we know what normal people are like, what people look like when they are not odd. It is reassuring to be reminded that we know a freak when we see one. There are, of course, points of view, angles from which we can all look like freaks to ourselves; and Arbus is unusually eloquent about this and about the way the camera can pick up the unwanted perspective ...

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 ...

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 ...

No Joke

Adam Phillips: Meanings of Impotence, 5 July 2007

Impotence: A Cultural History 
by Angus McLaren.
Chicago, 332 pp., £19, April 2007, 978 0 226 50076 8
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... Men​ are so exercised by the thought of impotence that they will believe virtually anything. During the 1920s and 1930s various medicines and contraptions were patented that promised to fill ‘weak and nervous men’ with ‘rampant vigour’. Though most of these inventions were denounced by the medical profession, their popularity was proof, if proof were needed, that the impotent man was infinitely suggestible and infinitely exploitable ...

What Can You Know?

Adam Phillips: Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, 26 April 2007

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million 
by Daniel Mendelsohn.
Harper, 512 pp., £25, April 2007, 978 0 00 725193 3
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... Tell me who you desire and I will tell you your history’ has become the shibboleth of post-Freudian autobiography, in which the lust for personal history has overridden the other, older kind of lust. Since everyone has a history it is now assumed that everyone has an autobiography in them. In this new solipsism we don’t want other people, we want to ‘recover’, ‘acknowledge’ or ‘mourn’ our losses; it is not new bodies we are after but knowledge of the only past that really matters, the individual past, from which much is expected ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

In a Garden in Milan

Adam Phillips: Augustine’s Confessions, 25 October 2018

Confessions: A New Translation 
by Augustine, translated by Peter Constantine.
Liveright, 329 pp., £22.99, February 2018, 978 0 87140 714 6
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... Early on​ in Emmanuel Carrère’s remarkable novel The Kingdom (2014), about the vagaries of Christian conversion, the narrator tells us that his unhappy mother always knew of the ‘inner kingdom’ – ‘the only one that’s really worth aspiring to: the treasure for which the Gospel tells us to renounce all riches’ – but that she had been irresistibly tempted by worldly pleasures ...

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 ...

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 ...

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