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Freud and his Mother

Adam Phillips, 31 March 1988

The Riddle of Freud: Jewish Influences on his Theory of Female Sexuality 
by Estelle Roith.
Tavistock, 199 pp., £25, September 1987, 0 422 61380 0
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... Psychoanalysis is a conversation that enables people to understand what stops them having the kinds of conversation they want. But as the unconscious and sexuality have gradually been replaced by developmental theory and normative standards of emotional health, the conversation has become predictable, when people’s lives, of course, are not. As psychoanalysis has become one of the helping professions, it has lost some of its original vitality ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

Dealing with Disappointment

Adam Phillips: Bertrand Russell, 8 March 2001

Bertrand Russell 1921-70: The Ghost of Madness 
by Ray Monk.
Cape, 574 pp., £25, October 2000, 0 224 05172 5
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... In the introduction to the first volume of his biography of Russell, Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, Ray Monk was clear, as his title indicated, about the story he had to tell, though also daunted by the amount of material he had to work with. The bibliography of Russell’s work lists more than three thousand publications, and this doesn’t include the letters he wrote – over forty thousand of them ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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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