Friday, September 5, 2008

The Unconscious and other side efffects of that asshole, Freud (Books - Side Effect by Adam Phillips)

Side Effects is a book I have ended up reading completely by accident, which is very appropriate given its thesis. I'll get to that in a moment. Its author, Adam Phillips is an English psychoanalyst and essayist who reflects on the tenor of his age through narrative - the individual narrative of his patients, and the more public narrative of literature - and, in the case of this book, the very existence of those tools: literature and psychoanalysis, and what their existence has to say about how we live. My god is his writing erudite. Energetic prose that is precise and instructive and that bubbles like white water:

Both the patient and the analyst are the recipients of these side effects, of all the things said and implied and unintended and alluded to as the patient speaks as freely as he is able, and begins to understand the ingenuities of the censorship he imposes on himself. Free association, what is said by the way, what is said as aside from the matter in hand, what is said 'off topic', is where the action of meaning and feeling is. In this picture digression is secular revelations, keeping to the subject is the best way we have of keeping off the subject, of speaking up without speaking out... Psychoanalysis as a form of therapy works by attending to the patient's side effects, what falls out of his pockets once he starts speaking... Undergoing psychohanalytic treatment, entering into what the French psychoanalyst Lacan called 'the psychoanalytic opportunity', is, rather like reading a powerful work of literarture, a leap into the relative dark. No one can ever know beforehand the effect it will, or indeed won't have (reading Goethe - perhpas unsurprisingly despite George Steiner's famous astonishment - didn't make the Nazis kinder).

What fantastic writing. I was listening to a radio interview with some contemporary spiritual guru and self-help author on NPR one weekend and the writer Adam Phillips was mentioned somehow in passing, but I took the speakers to mean Arthur Philips, whose novel Angelica I had just borrowed from the library. I happened to be ordering books on line at that very moment and so I entered the name I had heard and Adam Phillips books of essays came up. Talk about unintended side effects! Oh fortuitous accident. Since I am obsessed with the metaphor of character in literature and theater as a stand-in for the phenomenon of self, and I'm also pretty much smitten with the omnipotence of narrative in our lives - whether as stream of thought, as therapeutic tool, or as the medium of the books I so treasure - this book is really doing it for me.

Let me make clear that though the author is a psychoanalyst and observes that process and its attendant phenomenon, and although Harper Perennial has kindly classified the book in the genre of psychology it is NOT a self-help book. I hate self help books. I would never write about one here (hint, hint authors and publicists who send me emails). He is an observer. He is a writer. He is not dispensing advice. John Banville compares him to Emerson (on the book's cover, natch), and I believe he does the same for himself if I remember correctly what I read after midnight this morning. What I am marvelling at right now is his ability to find coherent language for what the process of psychoanalysis really is.

In actuality psychoanalysis is everything that is said about it, and not merely the preseve of its critics and devotees. It is only ever going to be as useful as anybody finds it to be. And any individual, or indeed any culture, that wholeheartedly endorsed it - that treated it as a myth rather than a fiction, as a religion rather than a set of tools, as a consolation rather than an affront - would not really have recognized what it was. Psychoanalysis asks us to reconsider the unacceptable, in ourselves and in others; in our personal and cultural histories, in our desires and thoughts and feelings and beliefs. And at the same time it asks us to wonder why we should want to do this; whether it can get us the lives we would rather live. And it has to acknowledge that asking oneself such questions - which can be done only in conversation with others - is not, and nver has been, high on most people's lists of pleasures. And there could be no self-evident reason why it should be. As a form of moral enquiry psychoanalysis asks what, if any, alternative there are to scapegoating; and what our lives would be like if there were.

That last sentence is pellucid without being glib, gorgeous. His first chapter is adapted from a lecture he gave on Freud. I am so tired of the demonization of Freud - though I'm not surprised by it. He's read by most people in early 20th century translation from German (certainly by me). His writings are read as advice rather than as observations of his self and others, written in a very narrow cultural context. People read a specific cultural observation as self-help and then criticize the writer for being inacurrate, mysoginist and a tyrannical. Well ok, he was all those things, but good readers understand metaphor when they read it in literature and his fantastic powers of observation apply themselves readily to other contexts and, moreover, usefully if they can be read for what they are - literature - and interpreted. His reflections on desire, sexuality, jealousy, and fear made use of the icons available to him - like Oediupus and Electra - they are useful if you want to look for symbols to embody cultural patterns of behavior seen over and over. I wonder who he would use now? Madonna? Clinton? The reaction to him is not surprising, given how arrogantly his narratives read and that his subject matter was about the very things people would rather bury. What a culture of certainty was that man's world in turn-of-the-century Vienna, and how his writing relfects that! He's intollerable. But the man's ideas pervade our culture and our language - ego, drive, unconscious. Tell me with a straight face that sex (and other hungers), death, fear, and ambition are not major cultural drivers in individualistic Western society. Tell me that most of us don't go through periods of wanting what we don't have. The guy invented the unconscious for chrissakes, a notion that pervades our very idea of ourselves. A notion that fills our films, novels, and television programs, even though people eat, pray, exercise and take pills to try and forget it. Are you going to throw the lightbulb out because you find out that Edison was an asshole?

The unconscious, which is Freud's word for the desire of childhood, and the history of its formation - a desire so enduring, so prodigal in its ingenuity, and so extravagent in its claims - is the stumbling-block that is Freud's most wonderful invention. The act alone of describing that which is at once irresistible and that one most resists - whether or not 'it' exists - is a great folly, an act of linguistic heroism. but is is in Freud's desire to describe how what he calls the unconscious works - both its provencnace and its wayward logic - that his special claim on us makes itself felt. Our desire, Freud suggests, is always a work in progress, unfinishing and unfinishes; and so is Freud's lifelong account of the unconcscious.
His notion was a work in progress, says Phillips, as is our own notion of our own unconscious desires, if we choose to think we have them and then to explore them. Side Effects as a whole covers more ground than Uncle Siggie. That is just one twenty-page essay. Phillips is looking at psychoanalysis and literature through a much broader lens and so far shows himself to be a marvelous interpreter, an astute observer our of culture, and a crack writer. I can see that I am really heading into some juicy territory and am relishing it.

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