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In his 2016 biography of Sigmund Freud, Adam Phillips describes the development of psychoanalysis as an attempt by the secular Jews of Vienna to recreate the experience of talking to their rabbis. Phillips has said that talking to him is like talking to your mum about your day when you get home from school. When I arrived at his office in Notting Hill, I was offered a coffee and ushered into a sizeable study.As we talk he listens intently. When he answers, he looks back and forth between me and the window as if he’s describing an ongoing incident in the street. Every wall is a bookshelf, but all the best real estate has long since been taken and so when Phillips sits down in front of me he is surrounded by piles of books that grow out of the carpet like saplings competing for sunlight in a forest clearing. Behind him sits a large wooden desk untouched by technology; he doesn’t use email.

A recent study found that around 37 per cent of workers in Britain reported having a job that either made no difference to the world or made the planet slightly worse. Perhaps the reason that talking to Adam Phillips feels so cleansing is that so many of us assume that if we talked to our parents, friends or partners about our day and how we felt about it we might bore them into a state of silent torture. And so Phillips’ desire to listen carefully is valuable. And yet behind the kindness and curiosity there is a radical message: that ‘fantasies of satisfaction are saboteurs of pleasure’ and that anything that you believe can satisfy you can frustrate you in equal measure. I wanted to ask him if capitalism, democracy and the will to live depended on naive expectations. I also wanted to know whether social media was destroying our capacity to be interesting to others and interested in the world around us.

Adam Phillips

Do feel free to ask me anything.

Five Dials

How do you choose the topics of your books and essays? And how do you know when an idea is worth pursuing in the form of a book?

Adam Phillips

It doesn’t involve conscious deliberation. What seems to happen is that things occur to me, and it feels like a very unconscious process in the sense that when something occurs to me it will often do so in the first instance as a sentence or as the initial sentence and then when I start writing it becomes what it is. So I don’t research things, for example. And things either work or they don’t. But if something occurs to me I assume it’s because I am preoccupied by it and have thought about it, and so when I start writing it then has its own momentum. But the actual process of things occurring is very unclear to me. One of the first things I wrote was an essay on tickling, and on that day I had seen a mother and child in the clinic where I worked and the child was tickling her mother all the time and we talked a bit about it, but not particularly intently. Then, that evening, I went to have supervision and my supervisor told me that a French magazine called the Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse wanted people to write short essays on any topic of their choice, and I went home and I found myself writing two and a half pages on tickling. I literally went to my desk and it wrote itself. I was slightly amazed by this, and slightly thrilled by it. Now that’s a relatively straightforward example; mostly it’s much less discernible than that. I don’t know where things come from. I do know that things strike me.

Five Dials

Do people ever suggest topics to you?

Adam Phillips

They do, but I resist that. I can give lectures on a given topic, but it doesn’t seem to work when there’s too explicit a demand.

Five Dials

Do you have an idea in your head as to what kind of person reads your books and why?

Adam Phillips

Not really, partly because I don’t go out very much. My life is really my work, my family, my writing and my friends. I have a sense that all sorts of people might be interested in my books. imagine they’re mostly university-educated people. But then I hear anomalous things. I’ve got a very close gay friend who’s told me that he’s met several people in gay sex clubs who have talked about my work and enjoyed it. I obviously like that it’s anomalous and unpredictable. But I’m not conscious of writing in any sense for an audience. I don’t write for my profession, for example. I write, in the abstract sense, for anybody who might be interested.

Five Dials

Why don’t you go out much?

Adam Phillips

Because I went out a lot when I was young and I sort of adored going out and now – I don’t know what this is to do with – I like it less. I have less appetite to do that. My pleasures are much more domestic and circumscribed.

Five Dials

In ‘Why I Write’, Orwell suggests that writers are motivated by egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historic impulse or political purpose. Do you agree? And if so, does what you do t into any of those impulses?

Adam Phillips

All of them in different ways. It’s a very ambiguous title, this ‘Why I Write’ thing. I very much doubt that people know why they write. They know that they write, and they sometimes know the consequence of what they write, but in my case it’s very mysterious. I didn’t have, as a boy growing up, any ambition to be a writer. And when I became interested in books as an adolescent, I wanted to be a reader. And then I wanted to be a child physiotherapist.And then I wanted to be a psychoanalyst. And the writing sort of happened to me. Like all children, I wrote essays in school, and in university, and I quite enjoyed it but it just wasn’t a big deal in my life. And then, when started writing, I loved writing. I find it so exciting and interesting as a way of thinking. Why I do it, I don’t know. I do know that it gives me a great deal of pleasure. Of course, I like being praised, admired, hated, read – all those things have their own pleasures – but the real pleasure is the doing it.

Five Dials

Do people hate you?

Adam Phillips

I’ve had some very critical reviews.

Five Dials

What do we gain when we re-describe our experiences and what do we lose?

Adam Phillips

We never know beforehand, but the wish to re-describe is the wish in some sense to enhance or to amplify, so in the attempt at re-description you want to move the story on or open the story out. And there’s always a risk of getting stuck with a description. And – I don’t know why this occurs to me now – that the reason we look after our parents is by agreeing with what they say to us. We want to both protect them and also we want to be reassured that there are authoritative figures who know what’s going on. Growing up is choosing who you want to be judged by and that means being freer to re-evaluate and rethink what one is being offered or encouraged to believe.And so I think of re-description as potentially a kind of freedom. It doesn’t mean that all ways of re- description are better than the thing we described, but it can be. So it’s as though it makes aspects of things available that might previously have been concealed.

Five Dials

Who do you want to be judged by?

Adam Phillips

I want to be judged primarily by my friends and then secondarily by people I admire.

Five Dials

Kafka said that ‘we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. ’Was he right? Or is that completely antithetical to a therapist living under the injunction to ‘first do no harm’?

Adam Phillips

I’m not myself very taken by the melodrama of catastrophe. I love that thought about the axe that breaks the sea inside us and all that. Indeed, when I was an adolescent I had that phrase typed up and sellotaped to a mirror. There are lots of good effects of books and Kafka is describing one of them. The problem with what Kafka’s saying is that it has the rhetoric of depth, as though it is essentializing what literature is about. It seems to be that literature can be wonderful as an amusement, as a distraction, as a stimulus, as a provocation, a whole range of things. It then depends on sensibility, what you yourself happen to find yourself enjoying. I myself don’t think tragedies are deeper than comedies; I don’t think anybody’s deeper than anybody else. For me, it’s much more a question of what gives me more life, what’s more enlivening, what gives me more life in the way I’d prefer. Because the risk of the Kafka position is that if literature’s traumatic … trauma has two effects: it either actually petrifies one and immobilizes one or it stimulates one. I wouldn’t want to promote the wonderful value of traumatic experiences. I think traumatic experiences are what we have to deal with, and ideally there would be as little trauma as possible in life.

Five Dials

You’ve remarked that talking to you is like talking to your mum about your day when you get home from school. A lot of ordinary people assume that they wouldn’t have the time or the money to try psychoanalysis. Would they be wrong?

Adam Phillips

No, they’d be right.The problem with it is precisely to do with time and money, and that’s why it’s been an almost exclusively middle-class occupation. Two things are true. There’s an economic reality that puts us all under pressure: people have to earn a living and it’s hard. That’s a fact. I also think it can be easy to recruit time and the lack of it as a rationalization for not doing the things that might not matter to one a great deal. One might be fearful of what one might su er in talking to somebody else and also fearful of what one might enjoy. And so it’s always worth wondering what people’s reasons are for not wanting to come to a talking therapy. Not that they might be wrong – they might be right. But given that psychoanalysis is just an extension and a re-elaboration of what people do ordinarily, which is talking to each other when they’re troubled, I don’t think there are a lot of reasons for not doing it.

Five Dials

You’ve tried to get away from the idea of psychoanalysis as ‘a middle-class seminar on the meaning of life’, but when you said that it reminded me of Camus, who said, ‘The literal meaning of life is whatever you’re doing that prevents you from killing yourself.’ As long as people feel despondent, is it not inevitable that therapy will become a discussion about how and why we should be alive?

Adam Phillips

It’s much more specific and concrete than that ideally – in the sense of it’s very much about how it’s come to this for you. In other words, it’s a historical story and it’s a story of what makes your life feel worth living to you or not and how this has come about. Whether or not that translates into a generalization about life with a capital L is questionable. But I do think a lot of people go through a period in their lives when they wonder whether their pleasures are sufficiently sustaining or whether there is enough pleasure in life, and these seem to me to be good questions. It seems to me a crucial question to wonder what makes one’s life worth living, if anything.

Five Dials

That sounds quite dangerous. What if you were to arrive at the conclusion that there wasn’t enough pleasure in life?

Adam Phillips

Well then, you must act on that. The risk is that people could be a bit like alcoholics who need everybody to drink. So the people who happen, for all kinds of reasons, to enjoy their life could make the people who don’t feel that they’re somehow inadequate or failing in some way. Whereas it seems to be entirely plausible that some people’s lives are unbearable to them and to go on protracting it is like torturing them. So it’s like the thing Winnicott said: when people come to see me saying they want to kill themselves, I don’t dissuade them, I just make sure they do it for the right reason and the right reason is their right reason, not mine.

Five Dials

Is that ethical?

Adam Phillips

I think it is. I think it’s unethical to keep people alive if they can’t bear their lives.

Five Dials

It seems like a lot of our frustrations come from the idealized notions of democracy and meritocracy that we picked up as children. Are our aspirations an enemy of our satisfaction?

Adam Phillips

It’s a very good question.The risk of cultural ideals is that they’re recruited to make us feel like failures or humiliate us. It seems very difficult, and interestingly difficult, to have inspiring and realistic ideals for ourselves so that we keep a sense of possibility without being poisoned by hope. Democracy, which I take to be the willingness to listen and bear what you hear from a diversity of voices, is a good ideal. It doesn’t strike me as impossible, but it does strike me as very, very difficult. But for me and the people who agree, this is an aspiration worth sustaining. Because fascism and all the fascistic variants are all a false solution. In other words, there’s a wish to delegate authority, there’s a wish to pursue one’s own servility, and people should be wary of their fear of freedom.

Five Dials

‘Poisoned by hope’ is an interesting phrase. What does it mean?

Adam Phillips

Giving people unrealistic hope, such that the hope as it fails makes them feel worse than they felt before they had it. I could, for example, promise my child that they were so wonderful they could do anything they wanted to do when they grew up, and the child could be full of grandiose expectation and be thrilled by this. But it could end up over time that the child actually can’t do everything and isn’t a genius and that this is radically dispiriting, as though he’s been made a false promise. So one is poisoned by hope when one is made what turn out to be false promises.

Five Dials

Aren’t capitalism and democracy both dependent on promises?

Adam Phillips

Yes, very much dependent on promises. There are certain promises of satisfaction and certain promises of prestige that are radically misleading. It’s a version of redemption. As in, ‘my life will be redeemed if I become rich enough, famous enough and acquire the right commodities’. Whereas it can be the most debilitating story about a life. There may be things to do other than profiteering, for example. There may be a lot more nourishing pleasures than the pleasures you can get by shopping.

Five Dials

You have a job that allows you to help other people and a hobby that allows you to express yourself. How do you relate to people who feel jaded or superfluous to the happiness of those around them?

Adam Phillips

I feel fortunate about what I am able and free to do. I’m very aware of how much thwarted ambition there is around and how much capitalism makes people unhappy. It’s as though one is promised the possibility of a life that is actually quite impossible for most people, and there is something really terrible and dispiriting about a culture that’s based on envy and where there’s such a radical inequality of wealth and opportunity. So I don’t see how you could be easily or unequivocally happy living in a culture that is sponsored by so much exploitation and unhappiness.

Five Dials

Why do we put up with it?

Adam Phillips

Well, that’s the question. I don’t know the answer to that, because obviously everybody is wondering about this a lot of the time. But psychoanalysis gives us a bit of a clue about it, which is that first of all, people are able to make their suffering pleasurable. So you could think that masochism is one of our most useful devices and the most debilitating. Because if I can enjoy my suffering I won’t protest against it. So there’s the cultivation of masochism, which is a terrible thing. I also think that there is a fear of freedom and fear of pleasure. I don’t mean that this explains everything at all. I’ve always been very struck by a story that Sartre tells, I think in Being and Nothingness. Basically, there’s a young married couple and every morning they come down to breakfast together and the husband goes off to work and the wife sits by the window crying all day and when the husband comes back she perks up. Sartre says that the obvious interpretation of this is that the woman is suffering from a separation anxiety but the real interpretation is that when the husband leaves she’s free. She then has to think about her own desire. Well, it’s a very good representative story because there’s a fear of possibility and also people under capitalism live under a great deal of intimidation and fear.We are led to believe that the world can’t be otherwise. It’s like the thing Žižek says about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

Five Dials

It seems that in the last few years we’ve moved on from capitalist realism and that politics today is more about protecting cultures from globalization.

Adam Phillips

I can see that, and it could be like being a sort of fuddy-duddy left-wing person, but one of the formative experiences in my life was working for the NHS, and the collapse of the NHS seems to be a symptomatic catastrophe. And actually the solution to the NHS is very simple, and it’s taxing wealthy people more and putting money into the health service. But, for all sorts of reasons, people are not willing to do this. And it becomes, fundamentally, a question of what kind of world you want to live in, and I would prefer to live in a world where everybody’s health needs and educational needs are met.

Five Dials

A YouGov poll has suggested that 37 per cent of British workers say their jobs do not ‘make a meaningful contribution to the world’. Is that something we should be worried about?

Adam Phillips

Very worried. People feeling that they’re spending their time doing futile things doesn’t work for anybody. Lots of people want to do good.They do want to address the suffering of other people and themselves. People are much kinder than we’re led to believe.The fundamental thing is that people, by nature, identify with the suffering and the pleasures of other people. It then becomes too painful and culturally disregarded, so that people gradually misidentify from people and they become increasingly able, as they grow up, to think of ‘us and them’ and to be, as it were, relieved that ‘I’m not suffering what other people are suffering’. Wilde is right when he says that everybody’s everybody. I am other people. I can’t just say I’m not X because I am X. And I think there’s a commonwealth and the commonwealth is disregarded and disidentified from.

Five Dials

We’re sitting in the middle of a city with 8 million people, but our emotions evolved in much smaller groups. Are we ready for this kind of society?

Adam Phillips

It may be simply an excess, that having contact with so many people evokes more than we can bear and we have to insulate ourselves and in that insulation we su er a kind of alienation. But I agree: the transition between growing up in a family or a small group of people and going into such a huge world is very, very traumatic.

Five Dials

Do you feel that kind of alienation? Just by living in London you probably walk past a hundred homeless people a day.

Adam Phillips

It would be melodramatic and self-pitying to say it’s unbearable but there’s something unbearable about it.

Five Dials

And yet it is bearable.

Adam Phillips

And we’re bearing it and that’s the problem. I can bear it. I can more than bear it.

Five Dials

You’ve called boredom a ‘precious process’ in which ‘real desire can crystalize’, but whenever I get bored I look at my phone. Am I destroying my capacity to be interesting?

Adam Phillips

Yes. You might be, because the risk is all the pre-emptive solutions, so it would be about tolerating frustration. One of the problems of capitalism is that it doesn’t, in a sense, allow people who have money to feel their frustration, because when you feel an absence of a loss or a lack you very quickly have an image of what will satisfy that. Whereas psychoanalysis says wanting is much more difficult than it looks. It’s quite difficult to know what one wants, and it might require conversation and thought and experimentation. In that moment when you feel bored and immediately look at your phone, it’s as though you’ve assuaged something, whereas sometimes you’ve distracted yourself rather than engaged with yourself. In may be worth, as an experiment in living, trying, when you have that impulse to look at the phone, not looking at it. It’s like all the things one wanted to do in the past when there was a kind of boredom – it could be masturbation, shopping, having a bath, phoning somebody, reading something. Well, the question is: why does it have to be filled? What is the unbearable feeling that is being pre-empted? Because there may be more in the unbearable feeling than one lets oneself know.

Five Dials

If you don’t look at your phone, you have to be alone with your thoughts for a while.

Adam Phillips

Exactly

Five Dials

Why is that scary?

Adam Phillips

Partly because it’s unknown; you don’t what your thoughts will be. Plus there’s no thought without feeling. So you’re going to be feeling all sorts of things. And then the questions becomes: will I be able to contain my feelings and will I be able to contain my feelings in the absence of some- body else? And these are real and also interesting fears. It would be better not to be too daunted by those fears.

Five Dials

What distracts you?

Adam Phillips

I’m more inclined these days to resist distraction, but I too can phone my friends. In a working day, if I feel restless I will wander around here. [Phillips gestures to the street outside the window.] I won’t go shopping as much as wander around or eat. The great distraction we all have is food. In our distractions we become cultural clichés, we revert to type, and if one doesn’t do that then there’s the possibility of discovering something else. The restlessness itself is not a disability. There should be gaps in desire.

Five Dials

When I read Missing Out, I could only think of it in the context of social media, which seems to present a toxic ongoing reiteration of the unlived life. All the research seems to suggest that spending too much time on social media makes people unhappy. Why do think people find it so appealing and go back to it endlessly? Why is it addictive?

Adam Phillips

It’s a kind of refuge. It’s a refuge from dealing with the more enlivening conflicts within one’s real life. Winnicott has an interesting phrase where he talks about depression as ‘the fog over the battlefield’, as though rather than feel the intensity of a conflict one might want to anaesthetize oneself. And there are a lot of cultural anaesthetics available, of which social media is one. I’m also slightly wary though, because I remember my parents being very dispirited by pop music, for example, and what I think is happening is we’re either being really corrupted and diminished by capitalism and/or new kinds of people are being produced. So that social media is not unequivocally moral degeneration. It could be that there will be a gradual creation of different kinds of people, so that people will both suffer the disabilities of social media and they will then need to find a self-cure for this, and/or people will use it very creatively. In other words, we could think that we don’t really know what it is yet and we’re going to get a lot of Jeremiahs faced with the new thing.

Five Dials

Do you ever worry about social media undermining the public sphere and making it harder for us to be curious by only showing us things we think we already want to see?

Adam Phillips

Yes I do, and I also think that this could simply be to do with one’s age. Virtual reality is very limited, because I do think there’s an exchange between bodily cells that goes on that is both conscious and unconscious. We’re having a conversation now, but more things are being exchanged between us than we know about. So we’ll end up thinking about this particular encounter in ways we can’t predict now, and there’s something about that that is very fundamental. After all, we start body to body and we develop through that, but the risk is we then gradually become disembodied through virtual reality, and I think disembodiment drives people mad.

Five Dials

Do you think conversation as we know it is immortal or is conversation always changing?

Adam Phillips

It’s always changing like everything else is. But it’s also useful to think about the ways in which we might want it to change, as well as the ways in which it’s changing in spite of us.

Five Dials

How would you want it to change?

Adam Phillips

When you read or go to see a play by Oscar Wilde, you think, ‘Wouldn’t it be fabulous to be able to talk like that,’ so on the one hand, given my education and class and so on, I would like conversations to be more amusing, provocative, intriguing, alive. But also, it’s just amazing that people can speak and that they speak to each other and what they are capable of saying, if you see what I mean. So rather than being prescriptive – and this is one of the reasons I like psychoanalysis so much: it’s an experiment in what people are able and want to say to each other. Because it seems to me that the potential of conversation is unknowable. But we also know from our experiences that conversations have tremendously powerful effects of a very unpredictable kind.

Five Dials

Now that we’re into the epilogue of the interview, I was curious to ask you if you’ve heard of Jordan Peterson. Are you aware of him?

Adam Phillips

Yes I am, but I don’t know why. I’ve definitely heard of Jordan Peterson, but give me a clue.

Five Dials

He’s a right-wing professor of psychology. He’s very appealing to young men who may feel alienated by modern culture. He says you shouldn’t express opinions about the world until you’ve tidied your bedroom.

Adam Phillips

I suppose what I’m wary of more generally is of people’s craving for gurus. I’m not at all wary of people’s admiration for people or of people’s interest in people and so on. But I just don’t think it’s a very good idea to pool one’s self-esteem into somebody else. What I like about democracy is that there are a lot of competing and collaborating views around but we’re not under pressure to all agree. So we don’t endlessly have to be electing consensual objects of desire. It’s like believing that, say, all men really want to be with a supermodel. Now it seems to me that this is absolutely and manifestly untrue, but what it deals with is the fact that people’s desires are very idiosyncratic. People desire and are moved by people for lots of different reasons, many of which they don’t know, and that can feel so troubling or estranging.

Five Dials

I see the hunger for authority as being almost omnipresent. Everybody wants authority.

Adam Phillips

Yeah. But if I sit here and nod, that itself may be too much of a concession. Because it’s more interesting as a question. Which is: if they do, why do they? And what’s the alternative? If I don’t want authority, what do I want? That seems to be an interesting question. The troubles with authorities are that the authorities tell us what we really want, and how could anybody do this? They could make suggestions. They could free us to experiment with what we might want. But no one knows what someone else wants any more than anyone knows what’s good for somebody else. I as a parent have to have some idea of what’s good for my child, but as adults it seems to me that we have to have a conversation about this and it’s an open-ended one.

Five Dials

The demagogues get away with it.

Adam Phillips

They do. But just because something’s always happened doesn’t mean that it always has to go on happening. There was a French Revolution. Things do happen.

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