Interview: Adam Phillips, On Balance (for BOMB Magazine)

I mentioned before that I had interviewed Adam Phillips for BOMB Magazine.  Well, they’ve posted an long extract on their site (to read the whole thing you’ll need to buy a copy of BOMB).  Here’s that extract for your interest, minus my introduction.  (And when you’ve finished this, take a look at his epic essay on happiness in today’s Guardian):

BOMB Magazine – Adam Phillips by Sameer Padania
Originally published with an introduction at

Sameer Padania (SP) Let’s start with how your new book, On Balance, has come together.

Adam Phillips I prefer writing essays rather than books. Over a period of time I’m invited to give various nonspecific talks and lectures. Nobody says to me, Will you talk about X? That tends to crystallize things that I’ve been preoccupied by, and a piece fairly quickly writes itself once that happens.

I don’t think too much about whether it all hangs together. I just write things that engage me, and then, when they get collected into a book like this, I trust that certain preoccupations will work themselves through. Otherwise, it becomes too tendentious and too focused and I don’t want that to be the case. When I read through the essays, I’ll keep the ones that I do still think are good and then I’ll think of what sort of order they might go in. The writing of the book, in a way, is putting them in an order.

In reading the book over, different things emerge at different times, but clearly one of the themes of the book is excess—that seemed to turn up in lots of different places. The idea for the title of On Balance, I don’t know how it came to me. I had read the Auden piece again, “Forms of Inattention,” where there’s that bit at the end about the tightrope walker. Ideas of composure or equanimity or balance or integration—all those words that have something to do with a kind of harmony—are at the heart of psychoanalysis in what it sets itself against, and also relate to what I seem to be preoccupied by.

I rely on the unconscious work of these things. When I sit down to write, I have a lot to write, but beforehand, I don’t. I’m not full of ideas. Writing is the way I think.

SP How much revision is there as you go along?

AP Very little. I admire people who struggle to articulate things, but I’m not one of those people—for me it’s more like automatic writing.

SP You’ve contrasted your writing with your psychoanalytic practice. What is the relationship between the two?

AP I really don’t know. All I do know is that I do psychoanalysis four days a week and I write one day a week, in the middle. I know that the conversations I have with people have a very powerful effect on me. Psychoanalysis is really difficult; writing is not, for me.

In psychoanalysis, I’m dealing with resistances, often with very intractable things. In a way, the connection between the two things works by being indiscernible, by not being articulated or thought about very much. As you may have noticed, I don’t use clinical vignettes, because I think psychoanalysis is private. So when I do use them, either they’re minimal, anonymous, or I make them up. And I don’t find myself interested in topics, exactly. I’m more interested in the sentences, as they unfold, that are nominally about something.

I was very wary of the way in which the psychoanalytic profession secluded itself, made itself rather mandarin and elitist. So I wanted to be seen to be part of the cultural conversation, something not mysterious—I mean, life is mysterious—that in and of itself is a social practice that can be talked about.

SP Over time your writing has become more political, more pointed. Do you have hope for an impact in the cultural conversation or even public policy? Is there something that you’d like your books to do or change?

AP I’ve always been embarrassed by the self-importance of psychoanalysts talking about the world as if they were going to have some major influence on it. Back when I was trained, my supervisor said to me, completely seriously, “If only they had child psychotherapy in Northern Ireland, their troubles would have been over years ago.” Now, for me, this represents the absurdity and grandiosity of psychoanalysis. The people who actually have some effect on public opinion are business people and journalists, with politicians somewhere in the middle of those. I can only seriously ironize myself in relation to this. I think of the books as more like dream work than propaganda.

I don’t write for psychoanalysts but for people who are interested in a whole range of things. My wish, if I could design it, is that my books would in some indiscernible way evoke something in those who come across them. People wouldn’t come away thinking, Oh, Phillips’s theory of X_ is _X. The reading experience would have a nonprogrammatic effect, but an effect.

SP Paul Holdengräber’s interview with you at the New York Public Library began with his observation that he could never actually remember anything that you write. Maybe it was a deliberate provocation, but that’s how I experience a lot of your work.

AP That’s the reading experience I’ve always loved. Certainly, when people say to me, as they often have done, “I can’t remember anything afterward,” I think, Great, that’s the point! The work is not there to be repeated or identified with, but something works on you.

SP The only analogy that I can think of to describe your most dense writing is “On Exactitude in Science,” the Jorge Luis Borges short story of the map that matches in size the territory it depicts. It can’t be practically reduced or summarized, only replicated or reworked . . .

AP I often feel that I’m reinventing the wheel. A lot of my writing is obvious; I don’t feel when I read it that it’s amazingly original. My writing is very reiterative, and it feels like that because things are being worked out, not resolved. They are going on being thought about, and I often don’t know what they are at the time. All I know is that when I read the writing back to myself, it has to sound good to me, like a song may sound good to you.

SP Can you describe the process of putting things in an order that builds it as a book rather than a collection of essays?

AP The dilemma is that it is a miscellany, on the one hand, but it also has things running through it. I don’t want it to be contrived in the way it is ordered, but I want it to be at least possible for somebody to perceive there is some structure in it. I want there to be a sufficient variety of tones, so people don’t get locked into a certain density of text. So it opens with “Five Short Talks on Excess,” the radio pieces. And then some of the pieces on fundamentalism are accessible and some are not. Then two-thirds into the book there’s something very difficult, and by that I simply mean more psychoanalytic. When you read it did you feel like there was some kind of structure to it?

SP Yeah, the radio pieces were a great tonal opening, but I may be a prejudiced reader. I’ve heard you on the radio, so I already had your voice in my head, quite literally.

There was one piece that I couldn’t see how it fit in: “Sleeping It Off,” the very short, sharp piece on sleep that appeared originally in the Threepenny Review. It felt like a speed bump in the book. It comes after the essay “On What Is Fundamental.” I found that shift jarring; I still haven’t quite worked out why.

AP Well, that was the one piece I didn’t know where to put. I couldn’t find a place where it seemed to work, so I just thought I’d stick it in there.

SP That’s reassuring. (laughter) I’d like to delve into the idea of excess in terms of information, and its contrast with scarcity or a kind of privation. We live in a world where, for example, 24 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. If that’s not excess and superabundance, I don’t know what is. To what extent do you react to that world, or pull yourself away from it?

AP I’m not on the Internet. I don’t have an email address. My partner does, though, so it’s not like there’s none of it. And I’ve got children who are really within the culture. Inevitably it’s a generational thing; I’ve increasingly wanted less communication rather than more, partly because of my job.

Your question made me think this: if you’ve had a mother, or parents, who have been extremely overstimulating in their demands of you, then this trauma of the available media is precisely your medium. It’s like returning to the scene of the crime. Consciously the thought is, This is all very exciting, which it is, but unconsciously the thought is, Will I be able to survive it? There is this massive demand on you and the question is whether you can do anything with it. I feel, very powerfully, that demand. This might be a slightly mad idea but there is a risk that we’ll have our sensibilities blurred, not simply by compassion fatigue, and so on, but by an overload of stimuli that doesn’t give anybody enough space to develop their own sensibility or discrimination. It’s as though there is a real terror around of people having their own thoughts about things, and so people are being assaulted with simulation. It’s like pornography preempting sexuality.

SP Do you think there is something qualitatively, cognitively different between the way people previously reacted to information and the way people react to newer, more immediate and fluid streams of information?

AP There is a strange, magical idea that you can consume without digesting, that you could eat without swallowing, as though there were no process. Again, a psychoanalytic analogy comes to mind: it’s the difference between a mother who needs to feed her child, and the mother who waits for the child to have an appetite and then feeds it. It’s an absurd cartoon, I agree, but capitalist culture is force-feeding us whether we’re hungry or not. What this means is that we never know when we’re hungry, and we don’t have the space to figure out what it is we want. It’s driving us all mad.

To read this conversation in its entirety, check out Issue 113 on newsstands September 15 or SUBSCRIBE.

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