Adam Phillips says somewhere, perhaps in one of his intriguing essays, perhaps in an interview with the Paris Review, that writing is for him “an experiment in what your life might be like if you were to speak freely.”
It is also a description he gives, in another way, to the process that goes on in the course of psychoanalysis and many other psychotherapies; for fifty minutes you can speak freely and know there is an audience to catch you, to cradle you, to correct you, to chase you to the deepest part of your self.
Phillips’ essays are intriguing for three reasons: their style; the tacit knowledge of the psyche that he brings to them; and his own practice of writing.
The style reflects the pleasure that Phillips states as the only real purpose of his writing. Sentences roll on through enigmas, with never a hectoring voice or a pedantic explanation. Making beautiful sentences is the point of the exercises, and Phillips is true to the essay’s exploratory and experimental genre, playing with and teasing out the silken strands of our stories with which we bind our inner lives. The simple play of his style is there in the title of Going Sane, pleading the paradoxical case that though insanity is well known, the course of developing into a sane person is not. His essays are, like Montaigne’s, peppered with enigmatically selected quotations that point always to this strange artwork that we all practise of making sense of our lives. The epigraph opening Going Sane is from Baudelaire’s Intimate Journals: “if, by some mischance, people understood each other, they would never be able to reach agreement.”
This deep, tacit knowledge of the strange workings of the psyche makes Phillip’s essays worth reading, where an equivalent stylist’s musings on fluff and fashion or the latest dilemmas of choice in politics are not. Though many of us have had experience of psychotherapy, much that is written about it does not register its subtle entanglement with the imagination. Here Phillips’ sense of style makes him the best ambassador psychoanalysis has ever had. Confidences are not breached, but he does gently share the insights of years of listening to the enigmas and dilemmas of his patients, for whom, he says somewhere, life does not work, and so it is for all of us from time to time.
This unique perspective is also seen in his practice of writing. It is not planned, except that he has a routine that he follows. Every Wednesday he sets aside to write, while maintaining his other profession of therapist. He writes only what pleases him, and is not concerned to persuade or badger or entertain. He claims that the topic of each of his essays or talks is formed in response, and at the moment, of the demand. It is in its own way his mirror of his patients talking out loud, not now as the patient but with a kind of free association of the mind of a very literate and cultured psychoanalyst.