Becoming Freud

From Joshua Rothman (The New Yorker)
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud

“Becoming Freud,” by the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, is short for a biography—less than two hundred pages—and it contains no startling revelations. But, in its own way, it’s an audacious book. It’s a revisionist history of Freud and his enterprise; its implicit goal, never stated but always clear, is to help us salvage the best parts of Freud’s work while leaving behind the rest—the outmoded theories and unwieldy jargon that make Freud a caricature rather than an intriguing thinker. (Whether that’s a worthy goal is an open question.)

Phillips is probably today’s most famous psychoanalyst, and a quietly controversial figure. For seven years, he was the principal child psychologist at Charing Cross Hospital, in London. (He’s now in private practice.) Famously, he spends most of the week with his analysands and writes only on Wednesdays; somehow, on that schedule, he’s produced eighteen books. Phillips is obviously brilliant—John Banville has called him “an Emerson of our time”—and yet it’s never quite clear how seriously you should take his writing. Like Emerson, he seems to regard much of it as exploratory or performative. (“When I write something and it sounds good, I leave it in, even if there’s doubt about it,” he has said, because he’s curious to see what readers will think.) He’s the editor of Penguin’s new series of Freud translations, even though he doesn’t speak German; last year, reviewing one of his books for this magazine, Joan Acocella wrote that “Phillips loves Freud. He cites him again and again. But his Freud sometimes doesn’t look much like the Freud we thought we knew. He looks more like Adam Phillips.” How much that bothers you depends on how seriously you take Freud. There are some people who would rather have Phillips.

It’s especially easy for the Freud of “Becoming Freud” to look like Phillips, because, in the book, the facts of Freud’s life are largely absent. “One of the first casualties of psychoanalysis, once the facts of our lives are seen as complicated in the Freudian way, is the traditional biography,” Phillips writes. Phillips doesn’t trust in the ability of a conventional “life story,” with its procession of names, dates, and places, to tell us what anyone, least of all Freud, was really about. Anyway, he thinks, the most important story about Freud’s life is psychoanalysis—that’s the story Freud himself chose to tell the rest of us about our lives and his. And because, as Freud knew, “whatever story we are telling, we are always also telling the story of our own wanting … at any moment in Freud’s life we can ask, encouraged and legitimated by his own work, what is Freud wanting from psychoanalysis? What is the pleasure he seeks? What is he doing it for and what is it doing to him? What about himself is he seeking to sustain and enjoy, and what would he prefer to ignore?” By starting with the flower, in short, you might get an idea of the root. [Read More]

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