The self at a safe distance

Adam Phillips tells Anna Picard about loss, the literati, and why he wants to 'do a Salinger'
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The Independent Culture

It would be easy to sneer at Adam Phillips, author and celebrity psychoanalyst. He practises in a book-lined, cobalt-blue Notting Hill consulting room. He thinks big thoughts, writes books either on arcane subjects or on matters accessible but from a highly literary perspective. Oh, and he's rather pretty too.

It would be easy to sneer at Adam Phillips, author and celebrity psychoanalyst. He practises in a book-lined, cobalt-blue Notting Hill consulting room. He thinks big thoughts, writes books either on arcane subjects or on matters accessible but from a highly literary perspective. Oh, and he's rather pretty too.

But how do we end up with such a thing as a celebrity psychoanalyst? And just what is so threatening about ideals these days? If Adam Phillips has committed any crime, it is that he still cares, even if the answers to all the big questions have proved elusive or impossible - or too expensive. The price he has paid for this is a certain kind of fame.

Darwin's Worms, Phillips' latest book, is about loss. A big concept, for this is loss in the broadest sense. He sees the end of the 20th century as a shrinking world of the imagination. He says "there is nothing deeper than group life", and his broadly socialist political concerns pepper his books. He is horrified by what he views as an era of "people sitting in dining rooms talking about money", despite acknowledging that any individual's chances of optimum mental health are influenced by location or class. Along with the Berlin Wall, the demise of an intellectual and moral approach to politics - as epitomised by Michael Foot and Tony Benn - is bemoaned. Phillips, while basically in favour of the burgeoning market of popular psychology and self-help books, is concerned about a consequent "devaluation of the language we use to talk about ourselves and each other" through the proliferation of "psychobabble".

"What is 'self-esteem' anyway?" he asks. "Certain words are very powerful - shy, sad, low self-esteem, depressed - and they're very coercive, they don't allow people to have their own thoughts. I'm interested in language that's more productive, language that goes on to produce more language; that would be my project here."

Phillips may loosely approve of self-help but he says that if he had "designed the world" he would have us reading (literary) fiction instead, because "I think novels give you a more complex, interesting, amusing account of what a life is". And Darwin's Worms is no Louise Hay for the literati; it elegantly raises questions about our approach to loss - through a reappraisal of Darwin's observations on decay and evolution, Freud's still-contentious theory of the "death instinct", and Phillips' linking of the two from a literary, psychoanalytic late 20th-century perspective - but seems to provide few answers.

It took more than an hour of talking about loss - of ideals, of imagination, of continuity, of religion, of loved ones, of self-image, of self-determination - before Adam Phillips revealed that the book had been written in the three or four months after his father's death.

It's hard to know how much to read into such a belated revelation. Phillips has an unease about the publicity circus, an unease which has acquired an added edge through the personal significance of his latest book. The CD collection that features so prominently in his earlier interviews - from Bax to the Beatles - is now safely hidden from interviewers' eyes, and he speaks of maybe having to "do a Salinger" one day. He is ambivalent about his own profile, really quite prickly about his pin-up status as the "shrinking woman's crumpet", and hates "celebrity questions". And I got the distinct impression that had I not refrained from asking him "What drinks do you like? What club do you go to? How many affairs have you had?", he would not have mentioned his father's death at all.

But the book itself is not personally revealing in the slightest; like his conversations, its domain is the world of theory rather than experience. The personal pronoun makes few appearances in Darwin's Worms, and the passage where it features most prominently shows Phillips at his elliptical best. "It is part of our own life story to try and keep control of the stories people tell about us. There is always the story of the stories I don't want people, including myself, to tell about myself." And no, he wouldn't be drawn on what those stories might be, though he doesn't mind hearing himself quoted back, claiming to find it "interesting", regardless of how contradictory some of his early aphorisms on his Jewish versus British identity can be.

Phillips comes across as the very soul of tolerance - a useful quality for an analyst, one would imagine. So it comes as a shock when the briefest flash of irritation or impatience shows through. "Who are the literati?" he asked me, in the way a childless, closeted, university don might ask about the Teletubbies. A rather disingenuous response from a man who has not only been published by the super-literary Faber for the last decade, but also regularly reviews books. And he was quite put out when I compared the modern ubiquity of having a shrink in middle-class society to acquiring a cat: "Is it like that?" he asked, with an unnervingly steady tone. "Is that what it's really like?" But I suppose a ready sense of humour is unlikely in a devotee of Freud.

At the beginning of our meeting he said that all therapy was a form of bereavement counselling. Later he told me it was also a form of counselling for bullying: "Everybody, by virtue of having been a child, has felt powerless and most people have had experiences of being humiliated or bullying - which are very, very powerful in one's life." Talking to Phillips makes you aware of exactly how much amateur psychology is involved in interviews, and cautious of applying the same tactics to him. Nonetheless, I would be surprised if he hadn't had direct experience of bullying at some point in his life, and he still seems defensive about how he is viewed by his peers in the psychoanalytic and literary worlds.

"I just write books about things that interest me. Presumably there must be, for whatever reason, a market. They really are for people who like them and love them. People who think they're uninteresting, pretentious or literary - they're not for them." Literary as pejorative? "Mmmm. Oh yeah. Sure. These are the kind of things I hear as criticism of the things that I write. In my professional world there is a great ambivalence about people who've read books other than psychoanalytic books ... There's a view that psychoanalysis is some kind of supreme fiction, that it has in it the real story. This to me is silly but it's meant that in the profession that I've been trained in, there are people who are suspicious that one might write in a literary way rather than a supposedly scientific way. I really don't know. I don't have much to do with the profession."

But Phillips is unlikely to leave the profession to write full time. Though he is a fast writer - Darwin's Worms was written in just under four months - he continues as an analyst, though now with an adult fee-paying clientele rather than in the NHS-supported field of child psychology where he formerly worked. After 20 years, psychoanalysis still fascinates him, though some regard the search for meaning in and of our lives as a futile, discredited exercise.

"In a Freudian account of a person, it's as though we're struggling to be our own biographers, to tell ourselves who we really are and what we're really like; the unconscious is the part of ourselves that is continually interrupting this." He leaned forward. "You think you're a certain kind of person and then you meet somebody or have an experience and you find you're different. You don't know the whole repertoire but we're all going to go on producing these bulletins and stories and accounts. We can't help but do that."

'Darwin's Worms' is published by Faber (£7.99)