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.
And so I decided to dive in.
“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.
The 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.