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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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 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 ...

Unfathomable Craziness

Adam Phillips: When a body meets a body, 18 May 2000

Svengali’s Web: The Alien Enchanter in Modern Culture 
by Daniel Pick.
Yale, 284 pp., £19.95, May 2000, 0 300 08204 5
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... First of all we have to imagine a world in which people suffer and have no hope that anything or anyone can make a difference. Then we have to imagine what it would be like to live in a world of people who have no wish to help each other or to feel better. If we don’t do this, the history of medicine, and of its country cousin psychiatry, not to mention the history of religion, will hardly seem different from a history of quacks and con-artists ingeniously exploiting the hopelessly vulnerable ...

Knitting

Adam Phillips: Charm, 16 November 2000

Lost Years: A Memoir 1945-51 
by Christopher Isherwood, edited by Katherine Bucknell.
Chatto, 388 pp., £25, July 2000, 0 7011 6931 1
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... Isherwood was a novelist with the inclinations of an autobiographer. There are always characters in his novels who love what he calls ‘playacting’, who charm and flirt and reinvent themselves whenever necessary, and as much as possible. They are such compelling and irreverent storytellers that they help us forget about truth-telling; they make everyone, including themselves, feel that it would be earnest and silly to start worrying again about honesty and good behaviour ...

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 ...

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 ...

Commanded to Mourn

Adam Phillips: Mourning, 18 February 1999

Kaddish 
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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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