I am writing to you about the recent review in the Dublin Review of Books by Seamus O’Mahony of Adam Phillips’s Becoming Freud.
The review focuses mainly on the writing style of a distinguished Freudian commentator, Adam Phillips, who, analysed by Masud Khan (enfant terrible of English psychoanalysis), has become an authority on Winnicott and in more recent years a thoughtful and stimulating commentator on Freud.
In a frantic search for a fellow critic of Phillips’s style, O’Mahony finally finds a friend in Antony Daniels (one can hear the gasp of relief) a conservative-leaning, Daily Telegraph-writing, prison doctor who unsurprisingly subscribes to the cause and effect medical model of the mind. Daniels seems to think that because negating Phillips’s sentences does not clarify differences in their meaning, this amounts to bad style. Yes, it probably is bad science or rather medical writing, but psychoanalysts and literary/philosophical readers seem to admire and enjoy it.
Good psychoanalytic writing is, by its nature, like poetry, ambiguous, and above all suggestive. O’Mahony contrasts Phillips style with Freud’s, which he sees as a model of clarity. Freud may appear clear at a surface reading but a more careful study (as conducted by someone like Lacan) will reveal fascinating enigma and ambiguity. Why? Because our own intersubjective experiences are themselves ambiguous. In fact, practising psychoanalysts are recommended to re-read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams every few years and I can say from personal experience that this can be a salutary experience.
It has often been remarked that Freud (like our own Hamilton and Boole who were mathematician-poets) was a scientific artist. Unsurprisingly then, modern psychoanalysis is splitting into two wings: the scientific neuropsychoanalysis pioneered by Damasio, Sacks, Shore and many others. In contrast the artistic (or literary) wing, pioneered by Freud has been led by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, an excerpt of whose work appeared in a recent copy of the drb. It is to this branch that Adam Philips belongs, although his style, compared to Lacan’s, is indeed the model of clarity the reviewer so admires in Freud. O’Mahony cites several lines of Phillips and declares they “induced in him a profound lassitude, a sort of torpor”. I read the passage in one minute and found no real problem. Why is this? For O’Mahony is evidently a highly intelligent reader. The answer is: like several hundred Irish men and women, I have studied the works of Jacques Lacan since the 1980s and the Frenchman’s influence is very evident in this book.
The reviewer complains of Phillips lengthy meditation on biography which centres on the idea that we are all suffering from biography. This section is highly reminiscent of Lacan’s famous article, “The Neurotic’s Individual Myth” (1979) in which he shows how one’s story or myth is foisted on one by the family (Tom was always the smart one; Jim takes after his father – only works if he has to ‑ and Mary, what can you say about Mary?) One can only imagine the impact of this oft-repeated refrain on the family. Uttered by the mother it clearly favouritises Tom, undermines the father and by implication, Jim; Mary is clearly going nowhere … it is in this sense that we suffer from biography; psychoanalysis – the talking cure – can release us from some of its excesses. An eminent (and recently deceased) Irish psychiatrist was heard to exclaim in exasperation: “Why do patients always want to talk?”
Psychiatry essentially aims to change brain chemistry – an utterly essential practice, especially when intervening in a psychosis. But this is where psychiatry and psychoanalysis part company, for the latter seeks to undo psychic damage by undoing the malignant family myth.
Another Lacanian theme exemplified in Phillips’s book is the “search for a father” something which comes out in the cases of the Wolf Man and the Rat Man. Phillips lists Freud’s own surrogate fathers: Brucke, Hamilcar (father of Hannibal), Charcot and Breuer. Freud was in search of a father (to replace his own supposedly “weak” father) and this search lead to several highly creative ventures.
Another O’Mahony complaint: how could the Oedipus complex explain so much: rivalry, ambition, jealousy, envy, pride, authority, religion, communism, scarcity, abjection, success, failure, mourning and murder. One answer could be that many of the above involve our being under authority. If there is one thing Freud discovered it is that authority must be installed in us all (except for psychotics who install their own) and none of us finds it easy to deal with this early experience (or later in the workplace) whether from outside or inside our own heads.
In the last thirty years, psychoanalysis has been opened up by Jacques Lacan, pushing biographies like Ernest Jones’s hagiography to the sidelines. O’Mahony also laments the “fact” that Freud biographies are all written by disciples; this is simply not true. To name one: Marthe Robert, the distinguished French Kafka critic has written the excellent From Oedipus to Moses, which gives an admirable account of Freud’s life and “Jewishness”.
Finally we also have the familiar refrain that psychoanalysis is not a science. However, many long term outcome studies show that moderate term analysis is cost-effective. Yes, we all know it isn’t physics but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work! Freud has been under sustained attack for well over a hundred years, but it seems the kicking must be invigorating the horse for it is still advancing – not on one front but on two: the neurosciences and the more linguistic/literary approaches stemming from Jacques Lacan. Freud once remarked that the writers and artists were always first with the insights (Melanie Klein’s seminal insights were indebted to a French novel) and there is no reason why this should change – neuroscience will never “catch up” with literature, which is always one step ahead.
Ross Skelton is associate professor of logic, philosophy and psychoanalysis at Trinity College, Dublin (emeritus). A practising psychoanalyst, he is editor-in-chief of the one-thousand-entry Edinburgh International Encyclopaedia of Psychoanalysis (covering every school of psychoanalysis and Jung) which was published in 2006 by Edinburgh University Press.