Tthose who find writing a chore better not know the literary method Adam phillips. Every Wednesday he visits his office in Notting Hill. During this brief trip, an idea begins to take shape, usually related to his daily work (Phillips is a Freudian psychoanalyst who spends the rest of the week seeing patients). As long as this notion arouses his interest, it will – by the time he sits down in front of his computer – will be transformed into his first sentence. The following hours are spent deploying this phrase in an essay, which is usually part of a collection. In 30 years, this routine has produced almost as many books, in Phillips’ aphoristic and lighthearted style, on topics ranging from monogamy to sanity to democracy.
The ease of Phillips’ prose is conditioned by his reluctance to “convince” anyone, including himself. The author treats his readers as his patients, with the aim of provoking and stimulating rather than persuading. Yet, if psychoanalysis – and psychoanalytic literature – is a discourse concerned with change, how can we achieve it without arguing, lecturing or cajoling? Is there a paradigm for changing another person whose coercion is totally absent? This is the question posed by Phillips – with a note of concern about his own literary and therapeutic practice – in On the will to change. If there is “something pernicious about the desire to persuade people; or rather persuade people by disarming them in a certain way ”, then psychoanalysis offers“ a form of honest persuasion. Or at least that’s what he aspires to be.
“Conversion” is Phillips’ synonym for dishonest persuasion. Once converted, we experience something akin to regression: helplessness, dependence, over-identification with an omniscient Other. Our primitive state of attachment is evoked, which is why the possibility of conversion simultaneously inspires fear and excitement. There is nothing we want and fear more than a surrogate parent telling us what to think.
Outwardly, the recent convert may appear transformed – donning saffron robes or Nigel Farage tattoos. But these performative gestures hide an interior stasis: an impotent submission to his original incestuous desire. For Phillips, it is our reluctance to recognize this desire that generates fantasies of radical self-transformation. Conversion seems to offer an escape route, in which the Oedipal basis of our identity can be dismissed. But drastic reinventions are often “in the service of the sustainability of what is supposed to be replaced”. They “change while keeping everything the same”.
Psychoanalysis provides an antidote to this inertia. Phillips reminds us that Freud saw the analytic treatment as a “resistant conversion experience”: the patient brings her inner conflicts and forbidden instincts to the session; but instead of converting them into something more tolerable (a dogmatic belief system, a bodily symptom), she is encouraged to confront them. Desire is no longer moved but interpreted. As a result, the analyst and the analysand forge a dialogue beyond this restrictive framework – a dialogue that no longer looks back to the parental relationship, but forward to an open future.
With this, the potential for genuine change supplants the compulsion to convert. Having faced her desire, the patient acquires the ability to reconfigure it. Yet the outcome of this process cannot be predetermined; its course will be sinuous, disorganized, unpredictable. “The desire to make something specific happen precludes any possibility of surprise,” writes Phillips. If the converts have “circumscribed their possibilities of surprise”, the job of the analyst is to widen them by creating a space without demands or expectations – where the conversation is limitless, improvised and free-associative; where neither party wants to direct the other to a fixed destination.
It is an inspiring vision of the consultation room; but problems arise when Phillips translates it into political philosophy. He suggests that “the desire to make something specific happen” is just as toxic when fighting for social change – so would that logically include the goal of reducing carbon emissions? He rejects firm principles in favor of open and continuous conversation – suggesting that permission for child abuse, for example, should be a topic of endless critical exchange, rather than a closed issue. Passionate political engagement is just an attempt to ‘simplify’, and ‘shared interests are forms of voluntary compliance’ – suggesting that we can forget, for example, Amazon warehouse workers looking for better conditions.
Despite Phillips’ penchant for surprise, his conclusions therefore reiterate liberal bromides – provisionality over fixity, conversation over collective action – which disintegrate on contact with reality. In a book that pits the threat of “dogma” against the desire for meaningful change, it’s ironic that Phillips continually returns to these inflexible assumptions. If we subjected the author to his own reasoning, we might wonder what motivates his investment in this narrow scheme. What complexities does this simplify? What contradictions does it avoid?
If Phillips’ thinking is less adaptable than it appears, it is also worth questioning his avowed refusal to convince or convert his readers. He is right to say that an analyst should avoid didacticism; but a writer’s impulse to persuade does not necessarily imply the same abuse of power. “Honest persuasion” surely means being explicit about this impulse, rather than disguising the arguments as impressionistic reflections or playful provocations.
Yet when we approach Phillips’ arguments as arguments, their insight is often undeniable. On the will to change ends with a coda on Covid-19, speculating that “when catastrophic change is inflicted on us” we may become more capable of “creating the kind of change we want.” Passive change can pave the way for active change. Phillips warns that this transition should not be tightly planned or “over-organized” lest it lose the experimental character of the Freudian session – a reservation that expresses his instinctive hostility to radical politics. , but which the radicals would nevertheless do well- advised to consider.
Review of Wanting to Change – an inspiring vision of psychoanalysis | Company books
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