The Conversation

D.J. Enright

  • On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored by Adam Phillips
    Faber, 165 pp, £14.99, March 1993, ISBN 0 571 16925 2

This collection of essays by the psychotherapist Adam Phillips is a peculiarly difficult book to review because it reviews itself as it goes along and is hardly to be described in other than its own words. Much of it consists of a flow of sparkling apophthegms: the effect on the reader is not unlike being hit repeatedly on the head by a small, pointed hammer. But the blurb’s reference to Phillips’s ‘aphoristic, hit-and-run style’ does him an injustice. He never runs far away. Preserving the analogy, one might compare him to a spirited motorist yet not inattentive to pedestrian readers; or he might be likened to a frolicsome ambulance driver who knocks people down and follows up with first-aid on the spot.

After summarising Freud’s attempts to describe psychoanalysis by analogies, Phillips remarks that it needn’t be a cause for dismay that ‘psychoanalysis can be a circus with many acts’: the more the merrier, one might think, more entertaining than having only one, the sexual act. Psychoanalysis is also ‘a story – and a way of telling stories – that makes some people feel better’: a claim less modest than it seems. And perhaps the most appealing of these analogies presents psychoanalysis as ‘a conversation that enables people to understand what stops them from having the kinds of conversation they want, and how they have come to believe that these particular conversations are worth wanting’. This brings in language. Phillips warns that psychoanalysis is a transitional language, and that something has gone amiss if the patient ends up speaking it. How often does this happen? Do patients – the question is wholly ingenuous – generally return to, or resume in some enhanced form, their ‘idiomatic’ lives, lives lived without benefit of the psychiatric clergy and their liturgies? Or will they forever be telling themselves stories (we all tell ourselves stories of some kind) couched exclusively in a grand, barbaric tongue and drawing on a grand, barbaric and limited repertoire?

Discussing phobias, Phillips makes fruitful reference to William James, a man who seems to grow in stature the more one reads him. James found the name ‘agoraphobia’ rather absurd; Phillips defends it neatly: the agora was ‘that ancient place where words and goods and money were exchanged’, and confronted with open space, ‘the agoraphobic fears that something nasty is going to be exchanged.’ James thought that the fear of open spaces could be due to a resurrection of an instinct ‘which may in some of our more remote ancestors have had a permanent and ... useful part to play’. Freud too saw phobias as having to do with self-protection, but where for James the open space evokes evolutionary memory, for Freud it evokes personal memory, and the anxiety felt in agoraphobia ‘seems to be the ego’s fear of sexual temptation – a fear which, after all, must be connected in its origins with the fear of castration’. Claustrophobia would seem a hotter contender for this explanation: sexual temptation, whether the punishment that follows if we yield to it is disgrace, divorce proceedings, paternity order, beating-up or castration, is more at home in a closed space. As witness the Islamic offence, khalwat, committed by two persons of opposite sex purely by being present alone in an enclosed place. But then there come to mind those acres of rye among which Shakespeare’s country folk would lie in the springtime, or coming through which, as Burns had it, one body might meet another body. Perhaps what evinces itself as claustrophobia in towns appears as agoraphobia in rural settings.

‘To be petrified by a pigeon is a way of making it new,’ Phillips says. ‘The phobia is an eroticisation not so much of danger as of significance.’ And much the same if one is dangerously attracted by something and one forms a philia? We are assiduous if spasmodic seekers after significance, vacillating between habit, where meaning is somnolent, and the desire for and arousing of meaning. ‘To be at home in the world we need to keep it inhospitable’ is the paradox Phillips tickles us with: rather as Proust insisted that if love is to continue in good health, we need to keep it uncomfortable, mysterious, uncertain, inhospitable. All one can say to both propositions is: well, it all depends. That the ‘meaning’ discovered or imposed is irrational doesn’t matter – until it does matter. ‘Phobia, ritualised as taboo, maintains a sensible universe’; where, without phobias, or philias, would we be? As obsessions they subvert that universe. Incidentally, Phillips introduces into his discussion of phobia the case of a bright 16-year-old girl given to provocative behaviour in school. If they have intelligent patients, it isn’t hard for analysts to be intelligent. Telling stories, holding conversations, can’t prove very rewarding if one of the duo is dumb. But possibly all analytic patients are intelligent in that if they weren’t they wouldn’t have gone to an analyst in the first place.

Is it not revealing, Phillips asks, what reaction a child’s boredom evokes in adults? In a form, ‘the most perplexing form’, of disapproval, they want to distract him! Boredom, it is suggested, is integral to the process of taking one’s time to find what interests one: a sort of standing before taking a standing jump. True, but boredom might also be mere apathy, which is not looking for anything. Still, one takes the point made by the cheerful 11-year-old, referred to by Phillips, whose time was pretty full, but who fell into gloominess when asked if he was ever bored: ‘I’m not allowed to be bored.’ An excellent answer to a boring question. A seemingly more stolid child, a boy of eight, accused of being excessively greedy and always bored, came out with the arcane utterance: ‘If I eat everything I won’t have to eat any more.’ Phillips glosses: ‘Part of the total fantasy of greed is always the attempt to eat up one’s own appetite’ – one koan or Zen paradox trumping another? (A new koan, inspired by Freud, would involve the sight of a person kissing himself on his lips.) He goes on, ‘For this desolate child greed was a form of self-cure for a malign boredom that continually placed him on the threshold of an emptiness, a lack, that he couldn’t bear’ – which is a diagnosis both credible and humane. When asked if he was ever lonely, this boy produced another fine answer, not the humdrum one that he wasn’t left alone to be, but that he was ‘too bored to be lonely’. This may say something in favour of boredom, a less acute condition than loneliness, though a less poetic one. Boredom in adults is a graver matter, and Phillips adduces two lines of dialogue from Beckett: ‘Do you believe in the life to come?’ ‘Mine was always that.’ Wittily put, and Phillips is a deft quoter, but perhaps psychologists shouldn’t take writers too seriously. And, though it seems hardly necessary to say so, vice versa.

Another case concerns a phobic girl of 12 years, who customarily paid no attention to what Phillips told her about the dates of his holidays. (How many did he take?) ‘She treated all these remarks as a kind of hiatus in the conversation; I felt quite suddenly as though I was talking in her sleep.’ It could be that not everybody is fascinated by other people’s holiday plans. But then, after he had for some time been telling his unresponsive listener that he was going away to America for a couple of weeks, one day she arrived with an atlas and drew maps of America and Britain, saying: ‘While you’re there [pointing to America], I’ll be here [pointing to Britain], making the tea.’ He said, ‘That’s amazing! T is the difference between here and there,’ whereupon she grinned and replied: ‘So I’ll be making the difference.’ The theme is ‘Looking at obstacles’, and Phillips’s conclusion is that the girl ‘could allow herself to recognise the holiday as an obstacle only when, in fantasy, she could bring it within the range of her own omnipotence: when she was making the tea.’ My conclusion is that I don’t have half the brains and brilliance of Phillips’s young patients.

It is oddly reassuring to hear that ‘pleasure, ... unlike pain, cannot be forced upon us.’ Yet what of the pleasure of being tickled by force? Admittedly, we quickly have too much of that good thing, and pleasure turns to something else. But some of the aphorisms strike one as dodgy. ‘Hell is not other people but one’s need for other people’ sits comfortably in the argument in progress, ‘On Composure’, but loses much of its conviction once out of the argument, and leaves one feeling merely (or irritatedly) blank. The very best aphorisms require no context. And perhaps, though the boundary-line is hard to locate, there is a drifting into excessive ingenuity. Worry is something one usually has good, sound and obvious reasons for; and, if not, then one has fairly obvious ‘masking’ reasons which stem from good, sound if unapparent reasons. Phillips notes the etymology of the word ‘worry’, from wyrgan, ‘to kill by strangulation’, as hunting dogs do; and as lovers can come close to: he cites Dryden on worrying a lady’s hand ‘with ravenous kisses’. (Elsewhere: ‘When we kiss we devour the object by caressing it; we eat it, in a sense, but sustain its presence’; der Mensch, someone else said, ist was er isst.) The word ‘ravenous’ leads him on to propose that worrying ‘is devouring, a peculiarly intense, ravenous form of eating’: true, we eat our hearts out, or we say we do, or others do, and no doubt envy is a form of worry.

There is that old sense that psychoanalysts can never lose (and their critics can never win), recalled here by the comment, in a chapter on dreams, that ‘every denial makes possible another kind of acknowledgment (just as each insight is the product of a specific blindness).’ And similarly in the case of the adult patient who always falls for unavailable women, women protected by other men, thereby creating an obstacle to his conscious desire: the object of his unconscious desire is found to be that very obstacle – the man. Know thyself. Well, yes, up to a point. But not too intimately. And maybe, as Carlyle reckoned with more certainty, the precept is an impossible one.

Phillips began by suggesting seductively that since psychoanalysis is about the most ordinary things in the world, it shouldn’t be difficult to be interested in it. He ends with a shrewd, mischievous look at Freud’s attitude towards religion. Religious consolations, Freud said, may be likened in their effect ‘to that of a narcotic’: as it were, opium. In Freudian fashion, Phillips asks why Freud is over-insistent in his disparagement of religious belief. The answer comes, because he is really thinking of belief in general: that is, all belief is idolatry. And ‘transference, after all, is a form of secular idolatry.’ Hence, the final sentences submit, ‘the one thing psychoanalysis cannot cure, when it works, is belief in psychoanalysis. And that is a problem.’ Why exactly is it a problem? Because the gates to religious belief are thus re-opened? Or because it means that psychoanalysis hasn’t really worked? Again, this sounds rather like Zen, it sounds like one of Phillips’s bright young patients.