Skip to main content

Adam Phillips and the New Freud

The New York Times, June 10, 2000

Adam Phillips headshotSigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis has been challenged and revised from the moment it was conceived. Now Freud’s very words (at least as they have been rendered in English) are being revised in several new translations that will appear in the next few years. Like all things psychoanalytic, the Freud dispute – over copyright law, the fine points of translation and the meaning of Freud’s work itself – admits of several conflicting interpretations.

What is not in dispute, however, is that at the end of next year Penguin Books will begin releasing the first parts of a newly translated 16-volume edition of Freud’s works. And in 2002, the Hogarth Press will publish a revised version of the 24-volume Standard Edition of Freud, translated by James Strachey and published between 1955 and 1967.

With the copyright to the original translation expiring, Penguin Books sensed an opportunity for a more modern edition emphasizing Freud the humanist rather than Freud the clinician and scientist (the perspective that Strachey’s translation favored). The task of editing the Penguin project fell to Adam Phillips, the writer and psychoanalyst.

The author of a series of slender philosophical investigations into the vagaries of the human condition (“On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored,” “The Beast in the Nursery,” “Terrors and Experts,” “On Flirtation,” “Monogamy,” “Darwin’s Worms”), Mr. Phillips is a significant literary presence in Britain. He is a regular contributor to The London Review of Books and has been described by The Times of London as “the Martin Amis of British psychoanalysis,” for his “brilliantly amusing and often profoundly unsettling” work.

But in many respects, Mr. Phillips is an unlikely candidate to edit a major new edition of Freud. A self-described “expert in the truths of uncertainty,” he writes enigmatic essays replete with quietly subversive aphorisms (the psychoanalyst “sustains his competence by resisting his own authority”; he learns “how not to know what he is doing and how to go on doing it”) that have led some to label him the “anti-Freudian Freudian.”

Gazing down at St. Patrick’s Cathedral from a 44th-floor hotel room during a recent trip to New York, Mr. Phillips, 45, has the sad eyes and shaggy mane that make him resemble a poet more than a revolutionary. He says his misgivings about psychoanalysis are directed less at Freud than at those who have reduced his creation to a “science of sensible passions,” a therapeutic form of conformism. “Psychoanalysis has become a very dreary profession indeed,” he says. “It is terribly puritanical, moralistic and coercive. The institutionalization of analysis has killed its wilder spirit. The craving for academic respectability has made analysts want to be recognized either as real scientists or real artists. They aren’t comfortable sustaining the ambiguity that comes with being neither.”

An entirely different atmosphere surrounded the original, authorized translation. Advised by Anna Freud and a committee of her father’s colleagues, Strachey had no doubts that psychoanalysis was a thoroughly scientific undertaking. Although his translation has been consistently praised for its magisterial Victorian prose, Strachey has been criticized for concocting an awkward vocabulary (the Greek cathexis and parapraxis, for example, or the Latin ego and id for Freud’s unpretentious das Ich and das Es). Strachey is also said to have medicalized psychoanalysis by imposing a spurious scientific consistency on Freud’s sprawling works.

“What made the Strachey translation totally acceptable in the English-speaking world for over two decades is precisely what makes it problematic today,” wrote Sander Gilman in a 1991 article in the International Review of Psychoanalysis.

In contrast, Mr. Phillips says he intends to present a Freud for our times, “a secular, literary Freud who is seen to be like every other writer: endlessly re-describable and re-translatable.” To this end, the Penguin Freud will be part of the Modern Masters series, which includes such writers as Joyce and Proust. To underscore the project’s iconoclasm, Mr. Phillips has organized the books thematically rather than chronologically, and hired a group of literary translators, none of whom has a connection to psychoanalysis or are expected to use a uniform set of psychoanalytic terms.

Rather than impose his editorial voice on the entire project, Mr. Phillips is writing the introduction for only one volume (on “Wild Analysis”) and commissioning prefaces for the others from a distinguished group of academics, none of whom has a clinical psychoanalytic background. For example, Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, is introducing the “Repetition” volume (which includes “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” “Inhibition, Symptom and Anxiety” and “On Narcissism”) with an essay on Freud and Shakespeare.

“I think a literary translation will capture some of what has been lost in Freud: an unconscious and a conscious ambiguity in the writing, and an interest in sentences, in the fact that language is evocative as well as informative,” Mr. Phillips observes.

His approach to the new Freud is consistent with his ideas about psychoanalysis, which he considers a genre of literature, a form of persuasion closer to poetry than medicine. Mr. Phillips’s essays are ruminations on a variety of themes – the contingency of life, the impossibility of self-knowledge, the incompleteness of language, the power and limits of psychoanalysis; he cites “authorities” like Henry James and Ludwig Wittgenstein as often as he does Freud.

Psychoanalytic theory, writes Mr. Phillips, is simply “a set of stories about how we can nourish ourselves to keep faith with our belief in nourishment, our desire for desire.” And he believes that psychoanalysis has put too high a premium on self-knowledge itself. “The aim of psychoanalysis isn’t so much to ‘cure’ people of their conflicts,” he says, “but to help them find ways of living them more keenly. Psychoanalysis should reignite people’s interest in the world outside of themselves and help them become more self-forgetful. Sometimes introspection is symptomatic of a problem. More information about yourself doesn’t necessarily make a lot of difference, and very often it is merely a way to keep from experiencing the full range of one’s emotional life.”

Mr. Phillips studied literature at Oxford and had never met an analyst before he read Jung’s autobiography and was inspired to become one. He went into training soon after leaving Oxford and qualified to practice when he was 27. A child psychologist for 20 years (and the principal child psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital in London for eight of those), he didn’t begin writing until he was 34 and published a book on the British child psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott.

Children have always been Mr. Phillips’s primary reference point, although he now divides his time between treating adults in his private Notting Hill practice and writing. Five years ago, he and his companion, the critic and Lacan translator Jacqueline Rose, adopted a Chinese orphan, Mia. “When I started as an analyst,” he says, “I could listen to anything, no matter how awful. But once I had my own child, I just couldn’t bear it.”

Despite his high profile in Britain, it is only recently that Mr. Phillips has begun receiving a similar level of acclaim in the United States. Reviewing his most recent book, “Darwin’s Worms,” in The Los Angeles Times, the historian Michael Roth calls him “one of the most original inheritors of Freud’s legacy.” Dr. Robert Coles of Harvard believes he is “one of the leading psychoanalytic thinkers in the English-speaking world,” and suggests that the growth of his intellectual reputation may have been inhibited by his graceful literary style. “We’re so accustomed to the heavy jargon of psychoanalytic journals,” said Dr. Coles, “that we sometimes don’t know what to think when confronted with such elegant and evocative writing.”

Not everyone is pleased with the prospect of Mr. Phillips’s new edition of Freud. “It is a sore point and not a happy situation,” says Mark Patterson, the head of the Sigmund Freud Copyright in London. The dispute over the copyright was a result of ambiguity in the European Union’s copyright laws and a loophole that has opened the way for a number of new Freud translations. Whereas it had once been assumed that there would be a single English version until 2009, it now seems that others will appear. This year, Oxford University Press published a new translation of the first edition of “The Interpretation of Dreams.”

Dr. Mark Solms and the Institute for Psychoanalysis in London have spent more than a decade revising the Strachey translation. A painstakingly scholarly project, the new Standard Edition will be heavily annotated, correcting both Strachey’s mistakes and other textual errors. It will have an enormous glossary of terms, a new index, updated bibliography and essays on the translation itself. The new edition will also include 40 unpublished Freud papers, many of which were discovered after the last one appeared.

The economic stakes are huge. According to Mr. Patterson, the Freud estate still generates a substantial amount of money for Freud’s heirs. The new edition will have a first printing of 10,000 sets, each of which will sell for just over $1,000. It is projected that the updated Strachey edition will sell 600 sets a year after that. There will also be a CD-ROM and online version. The United States edition will be published by W. W. Norton.

Dr. Solms has decided in most cases to retain Strachey’s vocabulary (one difference being the word “Trieb,” which Strachey translated as “instinct” and Dr. Solms decided to translate as “drive”) because it has become so familiar. “This is the language that we know and use, warts and all,” he says. Given this approach, he is particularly dismayed that the Penguin Freud won’t be internally consistent. “I don’t see the advantage of having a hodge-podge of terms” he says. “If all academics start using different Freud translations, it will be a Tower of Babel. And our field is in enough of a mess to begin with.”

Mr. Phillips sighs and rolls his eyes when asked about the Standard Edition’s feat of scholarship. “It is the most pointless task I can imagine,” he says. “The fantasy of scholarly consensus and rigor is a symptom of psychoanalysis’s problem. I don’t care whether psychoanalysis survives or not – it’s not a religion which we need to sustain. Psychoanalysis will be around as long as it is useful, and then it will disappear, just as everything else disappears.”