On Interest

Adam Phillips

I can swim like the others only I have a better memory than the others. I have not forgotten my former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it my ability to swim is of no avail and I cannot swim after all.


When H.G. Wells accused Henry James of having sacrificed his life to art James replied, with characteristically artful indignation: ‘I live, live intensely, and am fed by life, and my value, whatever it might be, is in my own kind of expression of that. Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance.’ James’s value, he asserts, is in his expression of what he is fed by. Life, lived intensely, feeds him; and he makes something of it, something of his own, called art. What he is describing is both the privilege of the artist, and the necessity of the ordinary person. We cannot help but transform our experience – Freud’s emblem for this is dream-work – and we cannot help but express ourselves. Whether we like it or not we are making something of what we are given, even when we are merely making do.

People come for psychoanalysis when they are feeling under-nourished; and this – depending on one’s psychoanalytic preference – is either because what they have been given wasn’t good enough or because there is something wrong with their capacity for transformation. In James’s terms, they are the failed artists of their own lives. They have been unable for whatever reason to make something sufficiently sustaining out of what was supposed to nourish them. They cannot make interest; the kind of interest, James intimates, that might make one love life. And in the light of this there are, one could say, two kinds of psychoanalysis; or rather, psychoanalysis comes under one of two possible descriptions. One kind of psychoanalysis aims to make good – if only by reconstruction of the early environmental provision – an environmental deficit. At its most extreme this is analysis as a corrective emotional experience. The other kind aims to restore the artist in the patient, the part of the person that makes interest despite, or whatever, the early environment. At its most extreme, for the artist of his own life, it is not so much a question of what he has been given – no one chooses their parents, but everyone invents them – but of what he can make of what he has been given. The psychoanalytic model here is the dream in which reality functions more as a hint than an instruction, setting the dreamer and the child off on the work of inner transformation.

In his letter of self-defence to Wells, James is both privileging the notion of self-expression – the idiosyncratic privacy of transformation – and taking it as inextricable from, of a piece with, living intensely. For James life was not sacrificed to art nor was art an alternative to life: they were integral to each other. It would be like saying of someone that he sacrificed his life to dreaming by going round in the day looking for day residues to use.

By the same token, the artist in James is not divorced from what we might call the ‘materialist’. James’s subtlety always invites us, indeed provokes us, to note the crudely literal; in actuality it is sex that makes life (James had no children); and James’s art did give him importance – the power of a place – in the highly competitive turn-of-the-century market for novels. And, of course, in the pun of my title, the interest that art made for him was also the financial return on his investment (to be interested in something or someone is a gamble with uncertain returns). Art makes interest; it is a way of investing something that might be called Life or Experience – it is a species of risk. Interest may or may not accrue; but art, James intimates, is a version of stocks and shares; the market fluctuates. Something is transformed – work is done on it – in the service of making interest, sustaining curiosity, keeping one’s appetite alive. If James’s novels don’t make interest in the reader come alive they won’t read on, they won’t buy them. The writer’s appetite has to incite the readers appetite.

Psychoanalytic theory – in all its various versions – is a set of stories about this process of transformation that James calls Art (with a capital A) and we can call the art of everyday life; it is a set of stories about how we can nourish ourselves to keep faith with our belief in nourishment, our desire for desire. What every so-called patient speaks about is the appetite (and care) that kept him going at the very beginning, ineluctably complicated into the source and the saboteur of their confidence. What we now call desire is both hope and doubt about hope: a belief in the future and a fear of it. So how do we become sufficiently interested in our lives to want to go on living them if, as James believes, interest is something we make – and despite the fact that, at least in day-to-day language, the opposite of making interest is losing it? Ordinary language assumes, in other words – as did Freud, at least in his earlier work – that interest is something we’ve already got. We start, as it were, from a position of interest.

All our ways of pathologising people have to do with attributing to them a loss of interest in the appropriate things. It is both commonplace and wishful to take interest for granted. Every depression, every act of psychic deadening bears witness to the risk of interest and curiosity. ‘Whatever excites and stimulates our interest is real,’ James’s brother William wrote in his Principles of Psychology, knowing how much we can fear the real.

Psychoanalysis is the art of making interest out of interest that is stuck or thwarted. It doesn’t, in other words, believe that the football fan isn’t really interested in football: it believes that he is far more interested in football than he can let himself know. In psychoanalysis we treat the objects of interest as clues, as commas that look like full stops. Every object of desire is an obscure object of desire, leading us to ask both, ‘why this rather than those?’ and ‘why anything at all?’ Free-floating attention itself, as a method, is a tribute to the vagaries of interest. Evenly-hovering attention wants to land. There is, that is to say, as Freud implies, a will to interest that can usurp a capacity for it.

Indeed, to talk about the unconscious is to refer to the fact that we are interested in things despite ourselves; we have more or less conscious preferences or affinities, but we find ourselves living out alternative, often puzzling interests. I go to meet a friend but I find myself doing some shopping on the way; I fall in love with a woman but she reminds me of my father. Like sunflowers whose suns are hidden, we see ourselves turning in all sorts of directions, often at once. This is what psychoanalysis formalises for the patient: a repertoire of tropisms, of idiosyncratic drifts of attention called unconscious desire. In psychoanalysis we track the way the patient makes and breaks interest for himself. And we implicitly or explicitly persuade him that some interests are better than others. That it’s better, say, to spend one’s time looking at art rather than at bodies; that conversation and relationship are better than inner delirium; that the sense that nothing connects with nothing is dispiriting rather than reassuring. Every analyst will have his own – mostly unconscious – repertoire of suitable interests for a good life. So it is worth considering, from a psychoanalytic point of view, what we are doing when we are interested in something or someone; what our preconditions for interest are and how they work. Both how the patient got to be interested at all, and how they got to be interested in whatever they got interested in. It is a question of the relationship – which is at the heart of erotic life – between incitement and excitement.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in