Side Effects, by Adam Phillips

The art of therapy
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I get the sense that Adam Phillips, as a practising psychoanalyst, might have two couches in his consulting room: one for the babbling patient, the other for the aphorising analyst himself, languidly adducing his aperçus like one of Oscar Wilde's recumbent dandies.

Such is Phillips's stylistic facility that I sometimes wish these two would swap places, that the contriver of axioms ("irony is the religion of the incestuously minded"; "having the last word is never going to be the last word") would at last let something slip, allow some knotty parapraxis to interrupt the smooth grain of his prose.

It's worth asking (as Phillips likes to say) what the high polish of his paragraphs conceals. But maybe eloquence is its own undoing: Side Effects, in its brilliant and infuriating way, is a telling study in style and its discontents.

Phillips's last book, Going Sane, saw him somewhat Alain de Bottonised, his reflections on the aberrant nature of psychic normality stripped of their elegantly involuted formulations. Side Effects is, in that sense, a return to form, to an obsession with form. Its essays treat dramatically and delectably of the nature of creativity, the uses of nonsense, the confusion of desire and memory at work, the sense of an ending and the need to forget. As ever, Freud hovers over all his thoughts about family, sex and dreams, but Phillips ranges impressively in a varied intellectual and literary canon.

Great claims are routinely made for Phillips's prose, but it's rarely revealed just what his stylistic skill consists of. He is less a diffuser of Freud's ideas than their translator: he transmutes the genres in which Freud wrote - theory, fable, memoir, history and science - into the argot of a linguistically minded analytic philosophy, so that they come out sounding both eminently pragmatic and logically dizzying.

His interest is not so much in the depths of our urges, more in the vaulted language we use to describe them, and how we might escape what Joyce called "those big words ... that make us so unhappy". Hence a conundrum like "what do we want to talk about when we talk about dreams?" or such felicitous conclusions as "what we most want is to want".

The problem with these admirable dicta is that no matter how ardently Phillips assures us of his intent to unravel our tightest self-strictures, he sounds, at the level of his own sentences, rather too sure of himself. No actual doubt seems to snag the fabric of his arguments, no swerve of logic or narrative send him off into thickets of digression. Everything simply proceeds by the happy slide from irony to paradox, epigram to apothegm, and there is little left for the reader to do but admire the alacrity with which the seduction has been effected. Too often, Phillips's recourse to the twisted maxim seems a rhetorical tic designed to distract us from a relative ordinariness elsewhere in the argument.

And there are real holes worth picking in the texture of Phillips's text. There is his consistent use of "we" (as in "we are the animals that need protecting from ourselves"), which seems generalised to the point of banality, or to conceal an unremarked limit to the sometimes etiolated concerns of psychoanalysis. There is his curious reliance, when writing about art or literature, on oddly archaic critical models (here, the artist as "Promethean" or "midwife") that are practically pre-Freudian. None of which, however, stops Side Effects from being a maddeningly accomplished addition to the Phillips corpus. It is just that I would like to see in his writing a little more friction, risk, desire and disarray: all the stuff he's always telling us is so good for us.

Brian Dillon's 'In The Dark Room' is published by Penguin Ireland