Adam Phillips: Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature

illustration by jpbohannon

illustration by jpbohannon, 2013

In the office of a colleague a while back I noticed a towering pile of books on the desk, as if he were re-arranging his book shelves or carting out old titles to a different location.  But no,  it was his “to read” pile, and it was impressive and imposing.

Among the authors gathered, there was one whom I had not heard of–Adam Phillips. A psychoanalyst by trade–specifically a children’s clinical psychotherapist–Phillips read literature at Oxford, specializing in the 19th century British romantics.  And as the “science” of psychoanalysis has always been symbiotically tied to literature,  a degree in literature seemed the perfect training ground.
Adam Phillips photo: Andy Hall

Adam Phillips
photo: Andy Hall

And so I decided to dive in.

Of Phillips’ seven or so titles, Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature seemed a reasonable starting point. And, the frantic busyness at the end of the school term made a collection of independent essays more attractive and less of a task.

“As poets struggle to find a place in contemporary cultural reality, psychoanalysts, implicitly or explicitly,  are still promoting the poets as ego-ideals.”

Philips, “Poetry and Psychoanalysis”

The crux of Phillips’ essays is the mutual relationship between literature and psychoanalysis…and psychoanalysts’  established reverence for creative writers. Literature, according to Freud, gave birth to psychoanalysis and psychoanalysis often gives resonance to literature.

And so go his essays.

He begins with the essay “Poetry and Psychoanalysis” and brings in the young poet Keats–a former medical student–who famously stated that science ruined poetry when Newton reduced the rainbow to a prism.  Not so, Phillips says, for poetry (and you can read “creative writing” where Phillips says “poetry”) can do what the sciences cannot.  Indeed, much of his argument is that the science of psychoanalysis is bringing understanding to the vision of poetry.  Freud said, Phillips tells us, that the poets had long before discovered the unconscious, and that he only had devised a way to study it.

Phillips graciously gives way to “poetry” saying that the short history of psychoanalysis has been an attempt to study the unconscious that poetry reveals. And since both poetry and psychoanalysis–the “talking cure”–depend on language, and often, coded language, the two are intrinsically welded together.

And so he is off.

There are marvelous literary essays on Hamlet, Hart Crane, Martin Amis,  A.E. Housman and Frederick Seidel, all informed by an accessible shading of psychoanalytic theory, as well as masterful psychoanalytic pieces on Narcissism, Jokes, Anorexia and Clutter, informed by a broad knowledge of literature/poetry.  It is Phillips’ contention–his modus operandi, if you will–that the two disciplines can or should depend on each other for clarity.

Hamlet-and-skull-on-stampThe collection ends with the title piece, “Promises, Promises.”  In it, Phillips examines the “promise” that both literature and psychoanalysis offer. He writes:

“If we talk about promises now, as I think we should when we talk about psychoanalysis and literature, then we are talking about hopes and wishes, about what we are wanting from our relationship with these two objects in the cultural field.”

What does reading literature promise us?  What does analysis promise us?  Phillips contends that both promise us, to a degree, “the experience of a relationship in silence, the unusual experience of a relationship in which no one speaks.”  Of course, ultimately, the analyst must speak.  But it is in that silence that often we become “true to ourselves.”

Reading psychoanalytic theory can often be dry and dusty, but Phillips’ writing never is. Bringing in an encyclopedic knowledge of both creative literature and psychoanalytic literature (and, at times, arguing that there might not be a difference),  Phillips imaginatively and wittily plumbs past and current trends, canonical and esoteric literatures, clinical practice and private correspondence to bring to light his vision of psychoanalysis and literature’s potential and promise.


11 thoughts on “Adam Phillips: Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature

  1. Hello! Mr. Bohannon,
    I hope you’re having a great day!
    I’m a psychoanalysis psychotherapist in South Korea and I hope you’ve heard about my country.
    I was just surfing among lots of images for psychoanalysis at goole site, then one of them strangely touched my heart. It is your illustraion of consulting room for psychoanalysis above this page. It gives me so warm and cosy mood that I can’t take my eyes off easily!
    I’d like to know if it’s possible to use your illustraion for website of my private office?
    I’m afraid it’s rude to ask for you this, but I can’t help.
    Please let me know whether you’re OK with it.

    • Mr. Kim You Jin,

      Certainly you may use the illustration. I simply ask that you give attribution as it is on the picture. (I.e. “Illustration 2013 by jpbohannon”)

      Thank you and good luck.

      John Bohannon

      • I really appreciate your permission.
        It’s very generous of you!
        I will of course notify that it’s your work of art.
        I’m really pleased to have this warm painting at my web site.
        And actually I’m Mrs. ^^ and you can call me You Jin.
        Thanky very much again!

  2. Pingback: Freud and Rank Correspondence | Rudy Oldeschulte

    • Mr. Oldeschulte, thank you for reading. WordPress informed me that you left a comment, but there was no message. I have read your blog site, so would be particularly interested in what you had to say.

    • Hi Frances. Thanks for reading. Yes, the connection between the two is pretty strong, and this guy Phillips does a wonderful job in explaining the functional/purposeful connections between them as well. I liked it and will probably read some more of him.

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