Phillips and Emerson:

Against Understanding


Phillip Lopate

  When I first began reading Adam Phillips it was a happy discovery. I was drawn to his playfulness and wit, his love of paradox, his copious intelligence, his way of adapting Freud and psychoanalysis to whatever he was meditating on. Being something of a Freudian myself—I am deeply sympathetic to Freud’s voice and character, if unable to follow him in the more technical papers—I liked Phillips’ non-defensive, open-ended approach to the master, as though he were still a half-buried continent needing to be unearthed. Then again, there was something tantalizing about Phillips’ prose in general, the sense that he could say a lot more about any one point but was leaving it suggestively hanging in midair rather than moving on to conclusions. I associated this elusive, aphoristic, continental manner with writers like Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, a curious analogue in nonfiction prose to Hemingway’s tip of the iceberg prescription for fiction. Indeed, it could be argued that one of the achievements of the modernist essay, which extends to other disciplines, like Manny Farber in film, or Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg in art, is this very manner, dense, anti-systematic, philosophy on the fly, and difficult. While Phillips’ prose style is enticingly accessible, not particularly difficult, he admits to being more interested in writing that is “evocative rather than informative.”
  Still, after reading a half-dozen of Phillips’ books and each of his essays as they appeared in The London Review of Books, I began to pull away. They were stimulating and smart but left me dissatisfied. I came away not always sure what I was getting from a piece, or even remembering what he’d said in it, having left behind only a bemused, Cheshire cat smile. I found the author of On Flirtation coquettish, a tease. A flirt.
  I wondered if the defect were not in him but in me. Put bluntly, whether I was being competitive with him out of sibling rivalry. After all, we’re both middle-aged Jewish essayists, both prolific, we share many interests, his last name and my first are almost the same, and we are both members of the Boyers’ Salmagundi set (he the preferred, more famous younger sibling). Unable to resolve if the inadequacy were in him or me, I decided to keep reading him, but warily.
  Then I happened upon his 2016 collection In Writing: Essays on Literature (truth to tell, Robert Boyers sent it to me to for possible response in this issue), and found it held many answers to Phillips’ peculiarly enigmatic style, its relationship to his practice as a psychotherapist, and ultimately his vision. Perhaps because he was writing about authors whom he so respected (Emerson, Barthes, Byron, Svevo, T. S. Eliot, H.D., Sebald, Winnicott, Isaac Rosenberg, Samuel Johnson), the prose in this book seemed more straightforward and conclusive, less playfully elusive. It contained some magnificent essays, such as “Psychoanalysis for Poets” and “Johnson’s Freud.” I found particularly revealing his essay “Emerson and the Impossibilities of Style,” interestingly enough the one piece in the book that does not reference Freud. But Emerson pops up in essay after essay, making him, after Freud, the presiding spirit of the book. I am somewhat obsessed with Emerson myself (see my “How I Became an Emersonian” in To Show and to Tell). This could be taken as a warning, sibling rivalry ahead: but in fact I found it to be one of the most satisfying summations of Emerson I had ever come across.
  Phillips begins by invoking Emerson’s call to eschew imitation, because the one constant is change and growth, and we must press on to the “untried and unknown….For Emerson the original sin is of stasis, of renewal refused, of form as fixity.” This position has implications for the style he adopts: “So Emerson works one sentence at a time, without knowing, or letting the reader know, what could be coming next. As though each sentence was a leap, and he was wanting not to look before he leaped: or each sentence was a model, or a lead, that need not be followed. This was what John Morley referred to as Emerson’s ‘difficult staccato,’ the fits and starts of a style that wanted nothing more than to be always beginning.” The happy result of this style, one which avoids or disdains making connections, is an undogmatic, unimposing rhetoric that “continually provokes” rather than instructs: “We are left to wonder, when we thought we were being taught something. Emerson wants his writing to be informative only in so far as it makes it evocative.” Phillips could be describing his own style—nowhere more so than when he quotes Emerson saying: “I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope that it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.” Speak of the Devil. Phillips also displays an animus against explanation, partly because “explanations never end” and partly in agreement with Emerson. “Because for Emerson our lives are our possibilities, our biographies diminish the lives they describe; even our so-called experience is not sufficiently telling.”
  Like all connoisseurs of good prose, Phillips is always on the lookout for surprise, sometimes in the form of an unexpected aphorism or paradoxical twist. Having read some of Emerson’s essays ten times, I too love his capacity to keep surprising me, sentence by sentence, so that it scarcely matters that I can’t buy into many of his transcendental notions. But of course Phillips’ Emerson is not exactly my Emerson. Phillips neglects how influenced Emerson was by Montaigne, the book that changed his life (he said he felt as if he had written it himself). Montaigne’s stress on the inconstancy of the self and the onrush of flux and change, as well as his setting the template for the essay, deeply marked Emerson’s approach. I also cannot take as seriously Emerson’s call to jettison tradition and cut oneself off from European models in the interest of originality, American identity and making it new, since I can’t forget that he was the best-read person in America, and could more easily make such assertions, having already absorbed and internalized all the high points of Western culture and a good deal of Eastern thought as well. But Phillips has performed a valuable service in taking Emerson at his word, and pushing further this conundrum of how to keep being original, which speaks to Emerson’s obsession with untapped human potential that so resonated with Nietzsche, in the 19th century of industrial conformity and the onset of mass culture. I also have to consider that my immersion in Emerson’s notebooks, which are filled with personal glimpses into his daily life, helped me to grasp the more formidable, cliff-like essays. Phillips rarely cites the notebooks, preferring to quote from the great essays like “Experience,” “Circles” and “Self-Reliance.” So perhaps—and this speaks to my own pathetic limitation as a reader—I am waiting for Phillips to tell his own story before I can fully trust him; I need to see the man more, alongside the ruminator. Perhaps he already has, in one of the many books of his I still haven’t gotten around to reading; though I doubt it, because he so eloquently mistrusts biography and autobiography.
  He revisits Freud’s dislike of biography in his superb essay, “Against Biography.” Freud is quoted in a letter to Arnold Zweig: “Anyone turning to biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flattery, and even to hiding his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had, and even if it were it couldn’t be used.” If people cannot see themselves clearly, without delusions or self-idealizations, how can we accept the truth claims such a record puts forth? He seconds Barthes’ questioning of a coherent self in “The Death of the Author,” and his strategy of calling his memoir, Barthes on Barthes, a novel. “For Barthes the only identity is a fictive identity…Autobiography, then, as an invention, a staging, a fiction.” As for Emerson, his misgivings about biography have to do with its premature freezing of possibilities and its preoccupation with the “sepulchral” past.
  He approves the British analyst D. W. Winnicott’s embrace of nonsense verse, as part of being “committed above all to the idea of play,” in contrast to “the dominant form of British psychoanalysis—traditions committed to interpretation and understanding.” Here he is sounding very much like Susan Sontag in her “Against Interpretation” mode, the famous last line of which was: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” Sontag’s opposition to interpretation was in defense of an aesthetics of direct appreciation (a painting is about paint, dance is finally a series of movements) without resorting to banal superimpositions of moralistic or psychological takeaways, whereas Phillips’ opposition is rooted more in his psychotherapeutic practice, not wanting to shut the patient off too quickly from the irresolute. Inevitably, both authors’ essays are filled with interpretations—that’s the way the mind works, as Sontag later admitted— but perhaps their real beef is with vulgar or wrongheaded, reductionist summations? No, Phillips goes further: it is not just interpretation but understanding itself that is the problem. He, along with his hero Winnicott, is keen on “revising something about psychoanalysis—something that could be called the will to understand and be understood, and that Winnicott saw as always potentially the saboteur of the wish and the need to experience.”
  Gide once said: “Do not understand me too quickly.” Phillips takes that bristling response further, both because he is skeptical that we can ever truly understand other people, much less ourselves, and beyond that, because he sees understanding as too controlling or colonizing a mechanism. Quoting Emerson (“Each man, too, is a tyrant in tendency, because he would impose his idea on others”), he wonders “Could we for example give up on wanting to be understood…?” I can see how this would be a useful attitude for a psychotherapist to take, less so for a writer.
  Scattered throughout the essay collection are similar warnings: “understanding is the way we foreclose curiosity.” “The disabling temptations of sense-making—all those forms of making sense that are destructive to a person’s aliveness.” There are “ways in which so-called self-knowledge could sabotage self-experience…” “There are some areas where it is useful to make meaning, and there are other areas where the making of meaning is a way of preempting an experience.” “Self-knowledge can be narcissism by other means.” It is curious that Phillips keep positing self-knowledge and experience as opposites, when, to my mind, the arrival of self-knowledge is itself an experience. Actually, at my advanced age I think I would rather have more self-knowledge than more experience. Fundamentally, however, I don’t see them as separate and antagonistic.
  In his Paris Review interview, which is included in the collection and which takes us as close to the autobiographical as we are likely to get, Phillips says: “What I want is for people to enjoy the experience of reading the books and then forget about them. I’m not trying—consciously, anyway—to promote a set of theories or ideas.” An admirable premise for any belletrist to follow. However, he is so insistent on this point about understanding versus experience that it constitutes, if not a theory, at least a polemical argument.
  So if you are not going to try as an author to make sense or make meaning, what’s left? “The need not to know yourself. …You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you allow yourself to be unknown to yourself. Because the point of knowing oneself is to contain one’s anxieties about appetite.” His excitement on discovering Emerson (“Reading Emerson was the most thrilling thing for me”) was directly tied to that author’s exploring things “that the writer himself did not understand.” He favors Barthes’ use of fragmentation and discontinuous discourse as a method, in Barthes’ words, “to keep meaning from ‘taking.’” A comment by Lionel Trilling is praised for the reason that it “seems more compelling because it is vaguer.” His own essays are filled with questions, many of which he doesn’t bother or expect to answer. One can see how much of Phillips’ elusive style comes straight out of this avoidance of captured meaning. What he quotes Sebald saying could easily apply to himself: “‘I am not seeking an answer,’ he said. ‘I just want to say, "this is very odd indeed.”’
  Some of these articulations are familiar to me as part and parcel of what I would call the religion of essayism. Those of us who defend the essay as a form are prone to proclaim that it is exploratory, skeptical, open-ended, “unindoctrinated thinking” (to use R. P. Blackmur’s term), inviting uncertainty and doubt. In his Paris Review interview, Phillips notes the similarities between conducting psychotherapy and writing essays:
  “Psychoanalytic sessions…do seem to me to be like essays, nineteenth-century essays. There is the same opportunity to digress, to change the subject, to be incoherent, to come to conclusions that are then overcome and surpassed, and so on. An essay is a mixture of the conversational and the coherent and has, to me, the advantage of both. There doesn’t have to be a beginning, a middle and an end, as there tends to be in the short story. Essays can wander, they can meander. Also, the nineteenth-century essayists who I like, like Emerson and Lamb and Hazlitt, are all people who are undogmatic but very moralistic, though it’s not always quite clear what the moralism is. That’s to say, they are clearly people of very strong views, who are trying not to be fanatical.”
  So far, so good. Phillips and I are on the same page. It’s only when he says something like “the struggle to make oneself intelligible must therefore be some kind of distraction” that I start to resist this so seductive, brilliant writer.
  There is in some of these premises of Phillips a good deal that doesn’t speak to me. I am too far gone along the rationalist path, too wedded to seeking understanding, self-knowledge and meaning with words, too resistant to the siren song of the death of the author, dependent as I am in my personal essays on the assertion or at least pretense of a coherent self. And I like good biographies. Still, having read In Writing, I now have a better grasp of Phillips’ style as not just a manner, but a principled refusal to give into avenues that restrict—all in the interests of freedom to keep one’s possibilities open, and to experience more of one’s vagabond, fractured, contradictory, unpredictable selves.