HOUDINI’S BOX by Adam Phillips


On the Arts of Escape
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Tentative explorations into what it means to escape, from noted British psychoanalyst Phillips (The Beast in the Nursery, 1998, etc.).

Using aspects of Houdini’s life as a kind of refrain, and layering the escape-artist’s chapters with episodes from his own psychoanalytic practice, Phillips makes glancing forays into the complex world of flight. Contradictory, too, but that’s not much of an excuse when Phillips himself appears hopelessly muddled by his research. “People often feel most alive when escaping,” the author observes, although it “is often linked to a sense of failure.” He often strikes a passive, reactive note (“what we want is born of what we want to get away from”), and even his active voice is more than slightly obscure (“what one is escaping from is inextricable from, if not defined by, what one is escaping to”). Although Phillips provides some provocative ideas on guilt and avoidance (“the imaginative activity involved in flight can blind us to any knowledge of quite what it is we are escaping from”) and on Houdini’s role as a respected outlaw (his popularizing “of the iconography of what we now call sadomasochism” and his “tapping into a market for torture”), his theses are compromised by notions that simply don’t hold. “Things are not frightening because they are real, they are real because they are frightening” is a case in point. So is his assertion that “the pornographer works to avert the death of desire” and his bizarre declaration that “in this simple event—dangling, chained upside down, over 150 feet up—the traditional erotic story joined forces with the new economic story: you can make it if you work, if you’ve got something unique to sell.” What’s traditional about being chained and hanging upside down while suspended 150 feet in the air?

No blinding insights here, but rather a scaffolding of Freudian interpretation that feels highly provisional when not downright rickety.

Pub Date: Aug. 3rd, 2001
ISBN: 0-375-40636-0
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2001


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