BOOK REVIEW / Uncle Siggie's rod of irony: 'On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored' - Adam Phillips: Faber, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IT IS hard to tell what Adam Phillips believes, but he is definitely in favour of irony. In the last of these psychoanalytic essays, he says: 'It is surely one of Freud's greatest contributions to have multiplied the possibilities of irony.' It is a characteristically enigmatic pronouncement, probably meaning that, given the unconscious, all utterance may be found to have hidden designs; characteristic too in seeing Freud's achievement as essentially literary. Take this book itself: judged by its name and its cover - one of Andrzej Klimowski's neat but dull collages - it might easily be a Kundera-esque fiction. A perfectly conscious irony there, I presume: this is psychoanalysis for the lay reader, not by being made simple (not at all), but by being made arty.

There is a level at which this book is a contribution to knowledge, in applying Freudian enquiry to some unusual topics, such as worrying, solitude and composure, as well as the three in the title. It is equally a contribution to uncertainty. Phillips keeps the questions going to and fro. Psychoanalysis can help us think about worrying (say): it is both like and unlike dreaming. But then worrying can make us wonder about psychoanalysis, and 'why certain words that come to mind for patients are excluded by psychoanalytic theory; or why there should be any disparity between the language of analysts and their patients'.

Here, it seems, is a theorising and practising psychoanalyst (he's at the Charing Cross Hospital) who is prepared to ask some simple awkward questions of his profession, and the appeal of these essays is in their open and sceptical use of the Freudian inheritance. But Phillips's virtues are never that simple. When he says that psychoanalysis is 'worth having only if it makes our lives more interesting, or funnier, or sadder, or more tormented, or whatever it is about ourselves that we value', or that it's 'useful only as . . . one of many language games in a culture', it can't but sound reasonable and humanely far removed from authoritarian scientism. But, at the same time, the rude question of whether psychoanalysis is true is being gracefully deferred.

This evasion is at the heart of Phillips's procedure. The word 'stimulating' might have been coined for it. Charmed by the author's elegant web of quotations, analogies, resonant apothegms, rhetorical questions, his vivid anecdotes from the clinic, his watchfully self-conscious displays of intelligence, you almost don't realise that you're getting little the wiser about kissing, tickling, etc. Psychoanalysis, applied or reflected on, has become chiefly a way of spinning discourse, an excellent shaggy dog story, an inexhaustible fund of metaphor and paradox.

Above all, Phillips loves a poser, like his final irony that psychoanalysis is the discovery that abolishes true belief, because all beliefs are only wishes, including (hey]) the belief in psychoanalysis itself. 'And that,' he concludes, 'is a problem.' A final moment of solemn self-doubt? Hardly. You can almost hear the author rubbing his hands with glee.