BOOKS ; PSYCHOLOGY : A maxim a day: doctor at bay

TERRORS AND EXPERTS by Adam Phillips, Faber pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
ADAM PHILLIPS is the closest thing that British psychoanalysis has to a star. His two last books, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored and On Flirtation, had rapturous receptions. It's not hard to see why. The message, for a start, is so humane. Phillips wants us to recognise that psychoanalysis is not a science but an art. His writing does not stand out for its clarity and precision but you get his gist. He means that like the novelist and the poet, the psychoanalyst should know things that the scientist does not - things about the limits to self-knowledge, the unpredictability of the human psyche, the ambiguities of moral life, the indeterminacy of meaning. Phillips also wants us all to learn to enjoy ourselves on the couch, not always a place associated with fun. Then there is the style itself - breathless, skittish, and like the Freudian or Phillipsian self, elusive and ambiguous.

And Phillips is good. It is just that there are a few "buts" which, in light of the sort of publicity he has had, are inevitably a bit deflating. For one thing, his books seem to me harder than his fans like to admit - their erudition and playfulness ensure that. This one especially, a monograph and not, like the last two, a collection of essays, is likely to fall into the Stephen Hawking class: much talked about, little read. And it has to be said that there is an almost comic side to Phillips' work. This man is so literary that he makes Proust sound like the author of Modern Organic Chemistry. What is more, the literariness is, I think, getting more pronounced with each book. Phillips is in danger of forging his own signature.

First, there is the promiscuous use of quotation and paraphrase, not always directly related to the argument but vaguely suggestive of it. At 104 pages, Phillips' new book is not long, but its various epigraphs alone - to the whole book, its chapters and sub-chapters - are drawn from Andrew Marvell, William Empson, Wittgenstein, Vicki Hearne, Valery, Chesterton, Sandor Ferenczi, Rachel Wetzsteon, Blanchot, Thomas Bernhard, Anthony Kenny, Tobias Wolff, William James, Johnny Rotten, Randall Jarrell, Wallace Stevens, Stephen Dunn, Jamaica Kincaid, Virginia Woolf, Jan Richman, Winnicott, David Hockney, John Banville, Freud and several others. The source of the quotes is important too; Phillips likes novels, poems and autobiographies, but if he has to quote from Freud and the other analysts he looks (like Derrida) to their letters, footnotes, diaries, revisions, jottings and parentheses. This is as you might expect from a man who has found hidden depths in flirtation, kissing, tickling, being bored.

Next, Phillips has a taste for dreamlike parables, resonant but vague, and a weakness for maxims and paradoxes. Just one short page offers "Every gift is a possible future theft", "Every suicide dispels the tyranny of hope" and "Only megalomaniacs make promises". Finally there is the prose itself: digressive, parenthetical, intimate, casual, oblique. It sounds so agreeable, so conversational, so knowing, that it seems almost uncouth to ask Phillips what he actually wants to say. Anyway, you know he would only quote Wittgenstein or someone else: "Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn't the indistinct one often exactly what we need?"

Still, the book is not all mood, there is an argument that works on at least two planes. At the general level, and in keeping with the earlier essays, Terrors and Experts warns against the limits to experience and joy that we impose on ourselves. Phillips argues against a tendency he detects in all of us, but which he finds given an extreme expression in the thought of Descartes, to attach a premium to certainty, expertise, hard and fast categories; he is in favour of an openness to diversity, to ambiguity, to thoughtlessness and spontaneity - to the competing selves within every self. From the first, Cartesian perspective, all gains in knowledge and certainty are a form of progress. But, Phillips contends, psychoanalysis suggests that the search for certainty is often a reaction to early traumas, a desperate and limiting attempt to secure order in an orderless world. "Our conceptual systems ... are like containers for our inner complications, for the multiplicity of dissenting voices - a kind of exercise in damage limitation."

Of course Phillips' position has implications for psychoanalysis; and at another level, his book is about therapy. For too long, according to him, psychoanalysts have wanted to think of themselves as masters of a systematic body of knowledge and techniques, like doctors or dentists. But this is not his view: if they possess any expertise it is in "the truths of uncertainty". Rather than searching for the meaning of a dream, analysts should sometimes help to retrieve the experience of dreaming. They should not be foisting sexual categories on to their patients, but undermining them; not advancing the quest for self-knowledge, but throwing it into doubt. There was, Phillips suggests, a "post-Enlightenment Freud" who saw psychoanalysis in rather this way - as a discipline which challenged the overdeveloped intellect - although there was also a Cartesian or Enlightenment Freud devoted to systems and certainty.

Put like this, Phillips' message is salutary, and it would be perverse to quarrel with it. Here, though, lies the real problem with this little book. Once you have played against its words, negotiated its paradoxes and interpreted its parables, you are left with a cosy affirmation of right-thinking liberal sentiment: Phillips could do "Thought for the Day". For all his flair - and at times Terrors and Experts does attain a remarkable fusion of voice and theme - his ideas seem insubstantial, the argument impressionistic. Phillips, though, might take that as a compliment. "Too much definition," he ends this book by saying, "leaves too much out."