Adam Phillips and I see psychoanalysis in roughly the same way. Counting among the best psychoanalyst/writers Phillips defends its practice. I am no longer a psychoanalyst and no longer defend it.
Psychoanalysis provides what I would call a religious experience for unbelievers. In some cases, especially in France and Argentina, it offers access to what I would call a pseudo-religion.
Phillips understands well that:
… Freud was writing in a long spiritual, religious tradition of crisis writing.
Phillips has not joined the great Lacanian cult, so he limits himself to the notion that psychoanalysis brings people into touch with the poetry of life.
I agree that this is a type of spiritual or religious experience, but art does not provide access either to a religion or a pseudo-religion. Being a member of the audience at a play is not the same as being a member of a religious group attending a religious service.
Surely, great art might sustain and promote religion. A walk through almost any museum in Italy will prove the point. But, you can experience art without belonging to a religion.
This means, as Phillips and I have both argued, independently, that psychoanalysis is more like poetry than science, that it does not cure or even, at its best, pretend to cure, and that no one can really say that it works.
My own views are available in my new book, The Last Psychoanalyst.
Phillips offered his opinions in a Paris Review interview:
I read psychoanalysis as poetry, so I don’t have to worry about whether it is true or even useful, but only whether it is haunting or moving or intriguing or amusing—whether it is something I can’t help but be interested in.
In other words, psychoanalysis, like art, exists to entertain. It does not need to be true. It does not need to be useful. It needs to provoke the kinds of emotions you feel when you are watching a play in the theatre.
As I pointed out, psychoanalysis has never had any use for progress. A practice that is based on regression cannot really promote progress. Phillips explains:
One advantage of thinking about psychoanalysis as an art, instead of a science, is that you don’t have to believe in progress.
Phillips has also dispensed with the idea that insight will cure. In fact, he has dispensed with the notion of cure, altogether:
The discipline was practiced, though, as if we were going to make more and more discoveries about human nature, as though psychoanalysis was going to become more and more efficient, rather than the idea—which seemed to me to be more interesting—that psychoanalysis starts from the position that there is no cure, but that we need different ways of living with ourselves and different descriptions of these so-called selves.
As a practicing psychoanalyst Phillips has to hedge his bets. Yes, he says, psychoanalysis does not work, but that does not mean that it does not help people:
The great thing about the psychoanalytic treatment is that it doesn’t work in the usual sense of work. I don’t mean by this to avoid the fact that it addresses human suffering. I only mean that it takes for granted that an awful lot of human suffering is simply intractable, that there’s a sense in which character is intractable.
Again, you will find similar thoughts in religions. They also offer consolations, but they also offer membership in a community. As it happens, even, as we saw in yesterday’s post, socialization works… even for bonobos.
The activities that make you a member of a community do work for people. The best that psychoanalysis can do is offer membership in a pseudo-religion, a cult.
Naturally, Phillips must tell his patients that treatment might really mitigate their pain and cure their symptoms. Otherwise he would put himself out of business. And yet, he hedges his bets:
Patients come because they are suffering from something. They want that suffering to be alleviated. Ideally, in the process of doing the analysis, they might find their suffering is alleviated or modified, but also they might discover there are more important things than to alleviate one’s suffering.
And I don’t think the project is to make people feel better. Nor is it to make people feel worse. It’s not to make them feel anything. It’s simply to allow them to see what it is they do feel. And then what redescription might change.
As I put it in my book, psychoanalysis has gotten itself to the point where it is in the business of curing people of the belief that they should be cured.
Does psychoanalysis provide any understanding about human psychology? I have suggested it doesn’t. Phillips takes the same position:
In the same way, a psychoanalysis bent on understanding people is going to be very limited. It’s not about redescribing somebody such that they become like a character in a novel. It’s really showing you how much your wish to know yourself is a consequence of an anxiety state—and how it might be to live as yourself not knowing much about what’s going on.
Here, I do not agree with Phillips when he says that psychoanalysis does not try to recreate people as characters in fiction or drama.
If the world is a stage, and if psychoanalysis is about getting you in touch with life’s poetry, then you must end up living your life as a character in a play.
Both Phillips and the interviewer agree, as I do, that psychoanalysis has suffered a great decline of late.
The interviewer asks:
Do you think that the great decline in the popularity of psychoanalysis has been a good thing for psychoanalysis or a bad thing?
I think it’s the best thing that could have happened to psychoanalysis, because it means there is now no prestige in it, no glamour, no money, no public for it, so you’ll only do it now if you really love it, if it really engages you. I hope that the disaffection with it—even though it’s bad economically for people who do it, obviously—will free people to work out what it is. It’s too new for anyone to quite know what it is yet. I don’t at all feel that there was a heyday and then it all fell apart. I think it’s beginning to dawn on some people what it might be good for, that it might actually help us to live differently, and in unforeseen ways.
His response reminds me of an old adage: when life serves you lemons, make some lemonade.