In his new collection of essays, Phillips (The Beast in the Nursery, 1998, etc.), former principal child psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital in London, attempts to wed his first love (literature) with his second (psychoanalysis).
Beginning with Freud, psychoanalysts expressed their admiration, bordering on envy, for the poet, whom they felt had an intuitive grasp of a psychological truth that they sought to discover through the application of science. As the father of psychoanalysis aptly put it, literature discovers the unconscious, whereas psychoanalysis discovers a method for studying it. Surveying a century-long history of psychoanalysis, the author notices a decline in its ambition, from the impudent claim to being a superior fiction to a modest place as one of many interpretative methods. He gives credit where credit is due, pointing out that psychoanalysis’ self-identification with literature is not entirely without foundation, as both rely on language and eloquence. Psychoanalysis is a rhetorical practice aimed at restoring the patient’s confidence through the verbal medium. It has an oral tradition and a body of literature (Phillips draws a parallel between Freud and the romantic writers). Finally, both deal with human nature. The author gives a number of psychoanalytical essays (from Winnicott’s to Klein’s) a critical reading, and he debunks many presumptions that have not withstood the test of time (such as the bold statement that literature is a disguised representation of infantile sexual desires). While he never overtly claims that psychoanalysis is inferior to literature, Phillips promotes a more “literary” version of psychoanalysis, one that is “more committed to happiness and inspiration . . . than to self-knowledge.” In this vein, he discusses a variety of cultural topics, from Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare, and cloning to the latest translation of the diary of the legendary Russian ballet dancer Vaclav Nijinsky.
Intellectually stimulating and refreshingly unbiased.