BOOK REVIEW / If Oedipus was just very unlucky: On flirtation by Adam Phillips, Faber pounds 14.99

Click to follow
IN Adam Phillips's first collection of occasional pieces, book reviews and lectures (On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored), he presented some profound and original truths couched in canny prose notable for its circumambulation, tergiversation and wilful flirting with the sensibilities of the reader. Phillips also launched himself as a master of the modern apothegm. Such gems as 'in our dreams we are all surrealists, but in our worries we are incorrigibly bourgeois' and 'the artist is a man with the courage of his own perversions' hung around in my mind for months.

In the first collection, Phillips introduced his melioristic conception of the psychoanalytic project as a 'transitional language', a 'bridge to a more compliant idiom'. In On Flirtation, he has again deployed all his erudition and perception to beguiling effect. In his preface he states that, for him, 'psychoanalysis has always been of a piece with the various languages of literature - a kind of practical poetry taking its life . . . from a larger world of words'. He goes on to stress that psychoanalysis should be 'amusing', and that 'psychoanalysis with a light touch . . . need not be a contradiction in terms'.

Looked at like this, Phillips's title is a synecdochic formulation of his conception of psychoanalysis itself: 'Flirtation is an early form of the experimental life, of irreverence as curiosity.' In his opening section, 'The Uses of the Past', the writing is at its most overtly philosophic and theoretical. In the long piece 'Contingency for Beginners', he flirts with the paradoxes implicit in Freud's formulation of the parapraxis, or 'Freudian slip'. He compares the Freudian and Proustian notions of memory in a way that has profound implications for our view of Determinism. But Phillips never allows his wider ambitions to detract from the succinctness that make him so readable: 'If we begin to think of Oedipus . . . as just extremely unlucky, psychoanalysis would be a very different thing.'

His conclusions, while appearing self-reflexive - 'We are all beginners at contingency because it is the only thing we can be' - are more like poetic leitmotifs or tropes, to be turned this way and that in the reader's conceptual frame, than dry, deductive 'truths'. 'On Success', a lecture delivered to student counsellors at Oxford, further teases out his original conception of the Freudian schema, remarking that 'every symptom is a transgenerational task'. In his examination of the tragically sad - and successful - career of J S Mill, Phillips is unafraid to be heretical about the shibboleths of success. He ends the lecture by admonishing the counsellors that their responsibilities to the values embodied by academic success, and those embodied by genuine fulfilment, may well be diametrically opposed.

This harmonises, in a way, with his examination of the Freudian moral cosmology in his essay 'Besides Good and Evil', the teasing title of which reminds us that the way in which Freud has queered the ethical pitch is not by introducing pessimism into our moral thinking, but an irreducible scepticism.

While the weightier essays and reviews here represent a tough enough work-out for the lay person, Phillips's examinations of the ways in which we relate sexually to one another and ourselves ('On Love', 'Guilt', 'Cross-Dressing' and 'On Flirtation' itself) seem to replicate with their tantalising and teasing prose the very modes of behaviour that they seek to explain. To read Phillips is, in this formulation, to enter a flirtatious relationship with an intellect that flashes at the reader from the shadows.

But it is in his writings at the end of this volume, the essays on Philip Roth, Isaac Rosenberg, Karl Kraus and John Clare, that we seem to come closest to Phillips as a 'straight' writer, rather than as a hermaphroditic figure: an analyst equipped with the genitals of a poet. There is no doubting the intensity of Phillips's love of literature, and these essays are an impressive attempt to inhabit the Weltanschauung of some notably disparate characters. Phillips is acute on the transitional nature of such characteristics as 'Jewishness', 'madness' and 'satire', when applied to these writers' work; and in his essay on Kraus in particular he comes closer to a working analysis of the instabilities of the satiric character than any writer I have previously read.

It is an indication of just how apposite his title is that at times Phillips makes the world of the mind appear far more comprehensible, and at others far more unknowable and Stygian. Such judgements - as every Freudian knows - are only possible in retrospect, but it seems to me that Adam Phillips may well be one of our greatest contemporary psychoanalytic thinkers.