In the First Person
Adam Phillips: All literature is change
Afonso Dias Ramos

In this interview on his work and life, Adam Phillips talks about psychoanalysis, literature and the relationship between the two – both in terms of his personal activity and what it is that comprises them as fields of human understanding and intervention. Phillips is a psychoanalyst, literary critic and essayist with a vast and diverse oeuvre that has been translated into many languages. He is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books, the Observer and The New York Times and is currently coordinating the new Penguin complete works of Freud. In this quick-moving conversation with the interviewer Afonso Dias Ramos, the British academic talks about the world today, the changes that have occurred and those that may yet take place. He suggests that we should be attempting to have more open and flexible conversations.

philip sands

© Photo: Eamonn McCabe


Adam Phillips is one of Britain’s most celebrated psychoanalysts, literary critics and public intellectuals today. He has written twenty-five books about psychoanalysis, literature and culture on subjects ranging from Freud and Winnicott to Sebald and Houdini. He is the General Editor of the Penguin Modern Classic Freud series and a Visiting Professor of English at the University of York. His new book, On Wanting to Change, is about how and why we change, and the urgency of having conversations rather than conversions.

Adam Phillips, formerly Principal Child Psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital, London, is a practicing psychoanalyst and visiting professor at the Department of English at the University of York. Widely considered to be one of the leading psychoanalysts and literary critics in Britain, Phillips has authored twenty-five books, which include Attention Seeking (2019), In Writing (2017), Unforbidden Pleasures (2015), Becoming Freud (2014), Missing Out (2012), Intimacies (with Leo Bersani) (2010), Darwin’s Worms (2000), On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored (1993), and Winnicott (1988). A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Phillips is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books, The Observer, The Raritan, and The New York Times, and has edited works by, among others, Edmund Burke, Charles Lamb, Walter Pater, John Clare and Richard Howard. Among his notable admirers are writers such as Will Self, Zadie Smith, and Jonathan Safran Foer. As one of the most prominent experts on Freud and the history of psychoanalysis, Adam Phillips was also invited by Penguin Press to serve as General Editor of the new English edition of the complete works of Freud in seventeen volumes, reintroducing him to the public, less as the author of scientific texts than as a major literary figure in his own right.

Adam Phillips has been called by John Banville ‘one of the finest prose stylists in the language, an Emerson of our time’, and was praised by Judith Butler as one of the few authors today to have ‘thought and rethought psychoanalysis in powerful terms for contemporary culture.’ More than any other critic, his essays theorise the relationship between psychoanalysis and writing, therapy and reading, recasting it as a closer cousin of literature than science. The catchy but deceptively simple-sounding book titles include perceptive and erudite essays that cover a broad range of topics, from Nietzsche to Pessoa, Shakespeare to Lacan, Karl Kraus to Marianne Moore, Jean-Bertrand Pontalis to Frederick Seidel. They encompass everything from theories of couture and clutter to histories of hinting and first impressions. The signature epigrammatic style informs the provocative urge to turn modern clichés on their heads, whether arguing against the idea of self-criticism, self-knowledge and diagnosis, or championing solitude, boredom and attention-seeking behaviour.

This interview for Electra was conducted over the phone only days after the release of Adam Phillips’ new book, On Wanting to Change (2021), in which the foremost literary psychoanalyst picks apart the constant contemporary injunction to change our lives as part of a liberal myth of progress that condemns the idea of conversion harking back to Saint Paul and Saint Augustine. In this conversation, Phillips talks about some of his work as a literary essayist, and the future of psychoanalysis.

AFONSO DIAS RAMOS  What was it that led you into psychoanalysis?

ADAM PHILLIPS  I don’t entirely know. But when I was 17, I read Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, and it had a very powerful effect on me. I thought it was a really interesting and adventurous life. Then I read D.W. Winnicott’s Playing and Reality when it came out in 1971, and I had a very powerful feeling that I understood this book. I had an affinity. Once I’d read it, I knew I wanted to be a child psychoanalyst. But initially, these were reading experiences. I’d never met a psychoanalyst and didn’t know much about the subject. What I was really interested in back then was English literature. But when I read Winnicott’s Playing and Reality, I really felt as though that book had come to collect me.

ADR  So books played a formative role.

AP  Yes, but not before that. It was when I was about 16 that I became very interested in literature, and then it began to have an effect on me. Before that, as a boy, I was more interested in nature, music, friends, and sport, all that stuff. I wasn’t a keen reader.

ADR  You started working as an analyst treating children. What was that experience like, and how is it different from seeing adult patients today?

AP  It was wonderful. I found it endlessly moving, fascinating, intriguing, and it was just very, very compelling. I loved the work. In a way, seeing children is of a piece with seeing adults. Being a child analyst is a very good preparation for being an adult analyst. The difference is that, of course, adults are much more defensive. In a sense, I was freer with children because, quite often, if what you say doesn’t interest them, then they are just not interested. But if anything attracts the attention of children, they’re very interested in it, whereas adults are much more sophisticated in their defences. And then, of course, playing is very different from talking. But broadly speaking, there’s a lot of overlap; it’s really about creating the conditions for maximal symbolisation for freedom to speak, to say what’s on your mind.

ADR  That mismatch between childhood and adulthood was foundational to Freud.

AP  Yes, and it is a combination of a mismatch and an absolute continuity, both of which are true. Obviously, the precondition for adulthood is childhood. Yet while childhood informs everything, it does not predict anything or determine anything. That’s to say, one is not really the child that one was, of course, but one is also the child that one was.

"Literature really is, for me, the main category of which psychoanalysis is a part."


Salvador Dalí, The Enigma of William Tell, 1933


ADR  And how did you become a literary critic?

AP  When I was in university, I was always interested in literary criticism. In fact, some of my heroes were literary critics. So, in a way, this all came naturally to me. I never really thought of myself as being a writer. I always thought of myself as being a reader. But once I started writing – even though I started writing books on psychoanalytic issues –, it just seemed quite natural that I would go on to write about literature. And this is because literature really is, for me, the main category of which psychoanalysis is a part.

ADR  In Promises, Promises you asked: ‘Why have an analysis when you can read?’ But what role does writing play in this? Graham Greene once puzzled in his autobiography: ‘I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.’ Does this resonate?

AP  That is a very powerful Greene quote, and it does resonate with my work. When I started writing, I just could not stop doing it. It became a central part of my life, mostly because it was such a profound pleasure. I loved writing. I found it thrilling and exciting. It was like a way of thinking, but one that had a life of its own. That bit, I loved. Practicing psychoanalysis is more important to me than writing, but I like to be able to do both.

ADR  Do you see an affinity between the psychoanalytic encounter and the essay form?

AP  I do. It is very different talking to someone than reading, even though there are overlaps. Obviously, ideally, people have differing views on this, but if one wanted to, one would have psychoanalysis and one would read. This because, clearly, so-called good literature is exactly about what psychoanalysis is about: how to live, how to be, what kind of difficulties in living one has…

ADR  You cite more novelists and poets than analysts. Is psychoanalysis misleading as a specialisation?

AP  Yes, I do think that. One needs to do a bit of specialising to get to know it. But I do think that psychoanalysis should not be a specialisation. Instead, it should be part of a larger cultural conversation that would include religion, theology, literature, philosophy, and politics. I think psychoanalysis is something that people should grow out of. I mean that they should grow through it, and then grow out of it, in the sense that they should use it in order to make something of their own with it, as opposed to becoming disciples.



Noh mask, Japan, 19th century