In Writing by Adam Phillips review – the shrink as unreliable narrator

Adam Phillips’s diverse, probing essays on writers and writing are like ‘little gatherings of like minds’

Adam Phillips, the most perceptive of psychoanalytic writers, has always seen his calling as a closer cousin of literature than science. His day job gives his insights into the practice of writing an unusual edge. All great writers consciously or not employ the associative habits of the analyst’s couch, and understand that in certain ways the forward movement of a piece of writing is a kind of voyage of self-discovery, a watching of their mind at work, but few possess Phillips’s fascinated appreciation of those impulses. His own essays are living proof of that fact.

Those collected here are introductions to other books or lectures delivered at various invitations. Read together, and ranging over subjects as diverse as the singularity of Roland Barthes and the achievement of Isaac Rosenberg and the love life of Arthur Hugh Clough, they remind you that the vocation of “public intellectual” is alive and well, but never remotely, in Phillips’s case, a “strong and stable” vantage point. As with all the best critics, his essays read as if we have chanced upon him in the act of reading and the act of writing – there is at least as much circling doubt as adamantine certainty in his approach. He pushes and probes toward truths, coming at them from all angles, refusing solid ground. In his quest toward the modernism of Italo Svevo here, he remarks how “from a psychoanalytic point of view, all narrators are unreliable narrators. This doesn’t mean we don’t and can’t rely on them; it just means that we have to redescribe the whole notion of relying and reliability.” He never forgets to include himself in that equation.

With this armoury of caveats, Phillips is adept at opening conversations with writing (and, indirectly, writers, and having them, in turn, open something like their heart). Essays often become little gatherings of like minds: his essay on the successes and failures of Clough’s long poem “Amours de Voyage” is also a meditation on the influences of Emerson and Milton and Matthew Arnold and Macbeth. He assumes a deep intimacy with this range of reference; if you get lost in some of the woodier areas of this internal landscape, however, he never, as a writer, seems quite to forget you are in the distance, panting to keep up.

If you can keep on track, there are rewards around most corners. Phillips is preoccupied with the masks of self-revelation presented by language, and drawn to writers who share that preoccupation: TS Eliot, Auden, Montaigne. From time to time he will drill down into this fashioning of the self, and once started, keep on going. This is him on Emerson’s strategies of self-reliance, for example: “Style, like the soul, is always becoming, which is why the world (and oneself) might hate it; the hatred taking the form of envy, say, or mockery, or mimicry, or self-mimicry (staying with the style one has found and is recognised by).” If Phillips has a flaw as a writer it is probably that no stray word choice can ever go unanalysed; it’s never fatal to his sentences, but there are plenty of near-death experiences.

The touchstone in many of these inquiries remains Freud – Phillips last year published a brilliantly wayward short biography – though he is presented as one writer among many, rather than as any kind of overarching or shaping intelligence. In this light the author writes wonderfully about Samuel Johnson’s shared instincts and deviations from Freud, resisting any attempt to apply “Freudianism” to the writer’s work. Likewise, TS Eliot and Freud are contemporaries searching for frameworks to understand social forces, particularly evil, and coming to usefully different conclusions.

As a psychoanalyst, and a writer, Phillips is of the “employ anything that works” school. “Like all essentialist theories”, he says of Freudianism, “psychoanalysis makes a cult out of what could be just good company.” Literature, the love of it, risks the same religiosity. “Writing needn’t be a world domination project… but just the attempt to find enough people who are interested in what matters to you.” There is a great deal of what matters to Phillips just now between these covers; that alone should guarantee its interest.

In Writing by Adam Phillips is published by Hamish Hamilton (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.44 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End by Katie Roiphe – review
This study of six great authors and their approach to death teems with detail but somehow misses the mark

Rachel Cooke

17, Apr, 2016 @5:30 AM

Article image
The End of the End of the Earth by Jonathan Franzen; In Mid-Air by Adam Gopnik – review
Nuanced, elegiac essay collections by two New Yorker stalwarts offer welcome relief amid the current rancour of US politics

Tim Adams

06, Nov, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Jane Austen: The Secret Radical review – ‘sublime literary detective work’
Helena Kelly makes the case for Austen as an author steeped in the fear of war and revolution who wrote about the burning political issues of the time

Caroline Criado-Perez

30, Oct, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Human Relations and Other Difficulties by Mary-Kay Wilmers – review
A collection of journalism from the veteran editor of the London Review of Books is full of juicy insights

Alex Clark

13, Aug, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Treasure Palaces edited by Maggie Fergusson – review
History is brought vividly to life in a collection of essays in which celebrated writers revisit museums from their past

Tim Adams

14, Nov, 2016 @7:30 AM

Article image
It’s Not About the Burqa review – bold essays on women and Islam
An impressive collection looks at Muslim women’s lives in modern Britain

Burhan Wazir

26, Mar, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Free Woman review – Lessing is more
Lara Feigel’s brave midlife memoir looks to Doris Lessing as a guide to modern female emancipation

Stephanie Merritt

27, Feb, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Azadi by Arundhati Roy review – at her passionate best
The author tackles Kashmir, Hindu nationalism and the dangers of being outspoken in this startling collection of essays

Ashish Ghadiali

19, Oct, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald review – towards the sixth extinction
The author of H Is for Hawk returns to the theme of loss in these powerful essays about humankind’s destruction of our fellow species

Tim Adams

24, Aug, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard – review
In his first of four seasonal reflections, Karl Ove Knausgaard drifts through autumn, still treading a fine line between the banal and the beautifully unpredictable, says Stuart Evers

Stuart Evers

21, Aug, 2017 @6:30 AM