: the poet analyst, on Adam Phillips


This weblog, “the poet analyst,” is prompted by my recent appreciation for the work of Adam Phillips a British clinical psychoanalyst and literary essayist. Phillips uncanny writing bridges a gap between psychoanalysis and literature that fascinates my most personal, clinical experiences. He approaches analysis as a body of literature, a literary genre. He is both stylistic and profound. His twists, and turn of thought, in one complete sentence, often feels like a thrill ride through a garden of words.

From the start, Phillips engages the reader in the lesser-known writings of Freud. In one case he discusses an issue of literature using a 1908 Freud article on Creative Writing as an extension of childhood play.

Whatever else psychoanalysis is, it is a body of literature, an expanding body of literature that touches poetry at one end and neurobiology at the other. It may even touch the stars in some way, and likewise touches the darkest canyons of the contemporary mind.

In literature, the words are the clues to everything. Phillips makes a point that psychoanalysis has replaced God, and our religion is one in which we worship “The Word,” a delightful play on words if nothing else. A beginning from which to weave a tale about our origins in a time when the science or art controversy goes on as the culture develops.

There is a “worshipping the word” fundamentalism to psychoanalysis. It appeals to a particular sub-group of society known for its participation in the liberal arts. A psychoanalysis is an arrangement of narratives, dialogues, monologues and cryptically deceptive word use attempting to rearrange mental concepts into acceptable, if not enjoyable, mental conceptions of the human condition–in general and in particular.

The mind is a linguistic phenomenon organized around both acquisition and competency. A human infant is born with a capacity to learn a language, or several languages, in the earliest years. The perception and organization of our world are translated into symbolic cues that make up the language that the infant is born into. In this way, the language learning shapes the early world of emerging perception. Language emerges with infant development. One end of the spectrum is pre-linguistic and the other end is oratory and literature. Learning is thus a guide-post for mental formulations.
From a New Yorker article, Phillips quotes Randall Jarrell, who he said was the main object of his literary study before he switched to psychoanalysis: “The way we miss our lives is life.”

In his book, Missing Out, Phillips takes up the notion of what we might call the overly-analyzed mind. The near OCD of chasing the next right view, the next right manner, the next right perspective–all in the name of having a better life to live rather than living the life that we have.

Going back to Freud, Phillips reminds us that an analysis does not bring happiness or conflict-free existence, it might not even bring clarity. But if these are not the golden ends of an analysis, what is the golden end?  Phillips turns to literature for his clues about the human condition. He is equally comfortable in the world of Othello as he is in the world of Winnicott. Phillips is a writer, a literary essayist that uses the tenants of psychoanalysis as a pushing-off point to study the intricate machinations of our clever mental capacity, the divided mind in the active and the passive voices of the ego, the self, and the id.

Joan Acocella* in The New Yorker piece titled, This is your Life: A psychoanalytic writer urges to just deal with it, Acocella writes:

Dr. A. L. Dussault,

St. Augustine

2 thoughts on “: the poet analyst, on Adam Phillips”

  1. Helping the patient identify needs and wants, and to learn to continue to do so, seem to be the first steps in an analysis; then – or concurrently – to identify the internal and external barriers to fulfilling those needs and wants. This “conversation” may never stop – or may be picked up where it left off – because needs and wants change from cradle to grave, as do the abilities to identify those needs and barriers. Whether the analysand in fact meets those needs/wants, and whether she/he/they choose to overcome those barriers, may not be the point of analysis.


  2. thank you for your comment…desire and resistance, you and I agree about that. An analysis is a tool and as such may not be the appropriate tool for each situation. Interventions are mostly determined by the right emotional communication; a response that does not interpret, but rather is designed to show understanding. Thanks for writing. Al Dussault


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