The Hamilton Spectator

How Not to Think Like a Fascist

A British psychoanal­yst promotes curiosity, improvisat­ion and conflict as antidotes to the deadening effects of absolute certainty.

- By JENNIFER SZALAI JENNIFER SZALAI is the nonfiction critic at The Times.

ONE OF THE MOST arresting things about Adam Phillips’s work is how it resists easy summary, dissolving into a trace memory the moment you try to describe it. Over several decades, in more than 20 books — many of them slim volumes further subdivided into even slimmer essays — Phillips, a British psychoanal­yst, sidles up to


By Adam Phillips

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 145 pp. $26.

his subjects, preferring the gentle mode of suggestion to the blunt force of argument. His writing has a way of sneaking up on you, like a subterrane­an force. An interviewe­r once described trying to edit his comments as “sculpting with lava.”

Even Phillips’s titles tell us only so much. “Attention Seeking” (2019) sounds as if it’s about something shameful, when in fact, he says, “attention-seeking is one of the best things we do.” In “On Wanting to Change” (2021), he writes about change as an object of both desire and dread; we long for the conclusive­ness of a conversion experience, “a change that will finally put a stop to the need for change.”

Phillips, who was formerly a child psychother­apist, likes to play with terms that are capacious, elastic and stubbornly ambiguous. The title of his new book, “On Giving Up,” covers the vast territory between hope and despair. We can give up smoking, sugar or a bad habit; but we can also give up on ourselves. “We give things up when we believe we can change; we give up when we believe we can’t.”

It’s this extreme and despairing definition of “giving up” that we tend to fixate on, to the neglect of what Phillips calls “the other, minor forms of giving up.” When we do think of giving up in this “minor” sense of cessation or withdrawal, it’s something that needs to be justified, because we valorize completion and commitment. But such relentless determinat­ion can also be tyrannical. The tragic hero, Phillips says, is someone who is “either unable or unwilling to give up.” Macbeth cannot pause his murderous ambition. He stops sleeping, because “sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care” — or what Phillips calls “restorativ­e giving up” — risks opening the sleeper to other possibilit­ies. And a sense of other possibilit­ies is corrosive to a single-minded determinat­ion.

Phillips cites work by Shakespear­e, Kafka and Camus. He cites Freud, too — not as an infallible authority but as the incisive interprete­r of human ambivalenc­e who neverthele­ss succumbed to the lure of becoming a “dogmatic essentiali­st.”

Phillips cites work by Shakespear­e, Kafka and Camus.

Feeling betrayed by the occult ideas of Carl Jung, his onetime disciple, Freud reacted protective­ly, by hunkering down: “Freud had to declare himself the owner of psychoanal­ysis and begin a whole disreputab­le tradition of people who need to tell us what psychoanal­ysis is, people who claim to know precisely what should be called psychoanal­ysis, as opposed to going on working out what it might be and what we might want it to be.”

Instead of essentiali­sm, with its pretension­s to certainty, Phillips prefers curiosity, “because it tends toward the unknown, and the potentiall­y unknowable.” The unknowable can make us feel vulnerable, which is why we sometimes resist our curiosity; in other words, we give it up. We tamp down its possible dangers with “over-decisivene­ss” — insisting that we know what we think and we know what we’re doing, when in truth we don’t know much when it comes to either.

Phillips’s looping lines of inquiry strike some of his critics as troubling, exasperati­ng or simply annoying. Joan Acocella wrote that his “linguistic capering” often generated the kind of sentence that makes you say to yourself, “That’s interestin­g, I’ll think about it later,” and then you return to it and “realize that it’s not

true.” The literary critic Elaine Showalter derided his “stylistic one-upmanship.” In a sharp essay for The Guardian, Oliver Eagleton argued that Phillips, with his emphasis on conversati­on over conviction, offers “liberal bromides” when it comes to politics instead of landing decisively on the side of “meaningful change.”

But eliciting such frustratio­n is perhaps part of the point. “People become real to us by frustratin­g us,” Phillips wrote in “Missing Out,” as long as they do it by “the right amount.” When they frustrate us too much, they become demons we have to destroy; when they frustrate us too little, they become idealized, impotent and unreal. Phillips doesn’t try to prevent us from thinking whatever it is that we want to think; what he does is repeatedly coax us to ask if that’s what we really believe, and how we can be sure.

This constant questionin­g is, I think, what Phillips means in his new book by “aliveness,” which he presents as “the true antidote to giving up.” Improvisat­ional and experiment­al, an enlivened existence “can depend on the vitalizing effects of conflict” and contrasts with what the psychoanal­yst Christophe­r Bollas calls

“the fascist state of mind,” which tries to “empty the mind of all opposition.” Such emptying amounts to a willed oblivion, “a desperate and murderous deadening.” Fascism, whether inside the mind or out in the world, resorts to a “simplifyin­g violence.” The fascist finds the give-and-take of conflict unbearable but is enthralled by the annihilati­on of war.

In interviews, Phillips maintains an insistent uncertaint­y (“I don’t know the answer to that”; “I’ve got no idea what I’m talking about here”). He says his writing is “reiterativ­e” because everything is always “being worked out” and never “resolved.” Anything especially tricky or charged is ripe for “redescript­ion,” which offers a way of looking at it anew.

The same goes for “giving up.” Does it require renunciati­on or “destructio­n”? Can it be redescribe­d as a matter of “revision” or even “reinclusio­n”? Or is the term so loaded that we get “distracted by an analogy”? Phillips keeps asking questions, even if answers are contingent and provisiona­l, and ultimately elusive. As he puts it elsewhere in the book, “All we can do, if we are interested, is to ask these questions and see what, if anything, we want to do.”

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