Adam Phillips, psychoanalyst and London Review of Books regular, is a prolific writer whose trademark style is to craft ludic sentences which pass just the other side of making sense - thus earning him a reputation as a profound and original thinker. I made the mistake of buying one of his first books back in the Nineties, when he seemed to offer a fresh new approach to Freud, but found him annoyingly unreadable.
Since then I've followed his literary career only through reviews of his books. What's struck me again and again is how, without exception, every new work is extravagantly lauded for its keen insight into the human condition. Not detailed reviews usually, mind - more like the odd paragraph in the "in brief" section, in which the reviewer would remark that yes, here's another masterpiece from the brilliantly original pen of Adam Phillips, and once again he shows himself to be one of England's leading critics and thinkers, with his unique and penetrating take on the foibles of humankind. Almost as though, I thought, they'd puzzled through the odd page or two but didn't want to admit that they'd found the whole enterprise completely baffling and unrewarding.
The author’s selection of facts (for he has to employ some biographical facts) verges on the hagiographic. Let me mention just two names that come up in this short book: Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow and Wilhelm Fliess. Phillips tells us that the former, an early friend of Freud’s, “died in 1891 after years of drug-fuelled mental and physical collapse”, what he does not tell us is that Freud played an important role in that “collapse”, for it was he who first prescribed the cocaine as a supposed cure for Fleischl-Marxow’s addiction to morphine. Fleischl-Marxow became even more dangerously addicted, which probably killed him.
Fliess, for long Freud’s closest confidant, was an ENT surgeon who had a peculiar theory about a supposed nasal reflex that caused hysterical gynaecological symptoms. Freud allowed Fliess, on the basis of this theory, to operate on one of his patients, Emma Eckstein; the operation very nearly killed her because Fliess carelessly left a long gauze in her nose. Freud interpreted the haemorrhage from which Eckstein nearly died as an hysterical symptom.
One possible interpretation of Freud’s hostility to biography as a genre is that he had so much to hide. He dishonestly overemphasised his own originality; he did not follow the evidence to his conclusions but his conclusions to the evidence; he lied about the true outcome of the few cases that he wrote up in any detail; he wanted disciples in a sect of his own foundation, not independent investigators of a science. Phillips does not mention the formidable list of criticisms of Freud even to dismiss them, let alone refute them. As a biographical study his book is worthless.
Unfortunately, he is also an abominable writer. I will quote two passages, by no means the worst or most impenetrable, by way of illustration of his style, which is to approach meaning without ever quite reaching it:
“In his work Freud would describe the past as largely unrecoverable from — and give us a picture of the mind as a tyranny — endemically authoritarian and hierarchical in its judgments in which feudal and fascist states of mind struggled to be more democratic; in which there was a hatred for conflict and a terror of freedom.”
“In retrospect we can say that Freud needed his early passions for ancient history, for literature, and then for the new scientific method of his time to manage the full complexity of his experience; the anticipation of sexuality and of earning money, of earning an adult living. This gave him a language, a way of thinking, for this transitional period and this disparate language never left him.”
I have known National Health Service managers who wrote better prose than this. And the author is so fond of sentences without verbs that he might easily have acted as a speechwriter for Tony Blair, if only he could have made his meanings a little clearer. A little less psychoanalytic. A little more accessible to the average man.
When he ventures an unequivocal assertion, unqualified by a labyrinth of subordinate clauses, bracketed asides and arch self-contradictions, the author is inclined to portentous gnomic nonsense: such as, that childhood is inherently catastrophic and that man is in a permanently infantile state.
Wherever you open this book — as I have just done to page 105 — you find ill-written and highfalutin drivel. “Science, after all,” he writes, “may explain (and therefore justify) death — not to mention sexuality — but it can’t, as Freud was in the process of realising, cure us of their existence, or our feelings about them.” It would be hard to beat this passage for a combination of banality and inexactitude.
The bursting of the Phillips bubble? Well, it's a start.