Adam Phillips is a beloved friend, but I have never seen him do what he actually does professionally four days a week. I have walked up the flight of stairs to his office on Talbot Road in London; I have looked at the pictures on the walls; I have marveled at the books—psychoanalytic treatises, philosophy, history, novels, photography, art history, and, above all, poetry—piled up in such reckless profusion on the shelves, along the walls, under chairs; and I have sat on the couch where his patients presumably sit or stretch out. But I have not been his patient, nor have I observed him at work.
This is perhaps why I hold on to tiny observations of his interactions with the world, interactions that offer a possible glimpse of the peculiar power that spills over into the remarkable books that on the Wednesdays he reserves for his writing he somehow manages to bring forth. I offer one such observation, comical in its insignificance but also, in the way we have been taught to understand by psychoanalysis, revealing in its very insignificance.
We went recently as friends on a weekend road-trip to the north of England, a brief vacation together with our partners. We had made the mistake of staying in an ancient castle that had been turned into a ghastly hotel, something like a cross between Get Out and Fawlty Towers. Brexit has created serious staffing problems throughout the UK, and the people running this large, ungainly establishment, probably none too competent in the best of times, were in way over their heads. After a catastrophic dinner – overpriced, overambitious, and almost completely inedible - we decided that the safest course at breakfast was simply to order toast. The toast duly arrived in one of those little stainless steel toast racks, and Adam asked if we might have some butter. “Certainly.” Time passed without the butter making an appearance, and then more time passed. The waiter returned, and we pointed out that the butter had not arrived and that the toast was now quite cold. “We can redo the toast,” he assured us. More time passed. Then more. The toast in the little rack on the table looked positively fossilized. Finally, the waiter once again returned. Adam then held him with a look from which there was no possibility of escape and said, in a gentle but firm voice, “Tell me the truth. Do you have any butter?” The waiter paused and then said zanily, “The butter is on its way.”
To me the answer was not very significant—I do not even like butter on my toast – but the quiet inquiry revealed to me something about the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and the way he thinks and works. The peculiar mix of play and earnest—when he held the waiter with his gaze, I could not quite tell if he was amused, ironic, or entirely serious—was part of the compelling effect of those four little words, “Tell me the truth.” “Is truthfulness the precondition for change—for getting better,” Phillips asks in a recent essay from his book On Getting Better, “or is truth what we need in order to change?” In the little scene in the hotel, the waiter’s last desperate attempt at evasion, “The butter is on its way,” was enough to get us to change: we rose and walked down from the castle to the village below to find some breakfast. Truthfulness turned out to be the precondition for getting butter.
“Psychoanalytic treatment is founded on truthfulness,” Freud wrote (in Stratchey’s translation). Part of Adam Phillips’s project has been to call this formulation into question, to undermine the scientific claim – the claim to know the truth - -that underlies the psychoanalyst’s authority, while at the same time keeping the psychoanalytic enterprise going. How is it possible for the enterprise to continue in the absence of what its founder thought was its essential foundation? If the psychoanalyst doesn’t know the truth, who does?
Phillips’s critics fear that in the absence of a strong truth claim, the whole structure of psychoanalytic thought and treatment will collapse. Phillips has observed, quite reasonably and empirically, that the dream of scientific certainty in psychoanalysis has long been abandoned by most theorists and practitioners and that the enterprise has nonetheless managed to flourish into the present. More surprisingly, perhaps, he has argued that Freud himself, however much he was drawn to the scientific pursuit of the truth, already recognized that he would never reach the promised land. Deploying his extraordinary skills as a close reader, Phillips shows that in a crucial paper, “Observations on Love in Transference,” Freud at once continued to make the conventional, reassuring claim to truth that he made for his work in the New Introductory Lectures—the goal is “to arrive at correspondence with reality—that is to say, with what exists outside us and independently of us"—while at the same time recognizing that it was impossible ever to arrive at this correspondence. "There are no indications of reality in the unconscious,” Freud acknowledged, “so that it was impossible to distinguish between truth and fiction invested with affect.” This acknowledgment, Phillips remarks, “keeps alive the idea of there being truth in the unconscious, while telling us that it is impossible to recognize it. There is truth in the unconscious, but not for us.”
The truth here – the object of inquiry, essential, alluring, and longed for, and yet hidden, perplexing, and maddeningly elusive – is the truth of desire. Psychoanalysis is an exploration of the nature of desire, an attempt to discover what it is that we want, a refusal to be put off by evasions. Adam Phillips is our greatest contemporary exponent of this exploration. To know this I did not need to have observed him at work in his office: his power of inquiry is spectacularly in evidence in his prose, book after book with those remarkable sentences that have the sharpness of epigrams but at the same double back on themselves, call into question their own elegant formulations, unsettle even as they clarify.
Would that what we desire were as simple as a pat of butter! And we do not always get even that. Or at least not at the time or in the place where we expect to find it. As it happens, what we took to be the waiter’s zany evasion – “The butter is on its way” – was nothing more or less than the truth. Halfway down to the village in search of the longed-for breakfast, we encountered the servant who seemed in the crazy castle to be running from one task to another – trying unsuccessfully to mix a drink, sweeping the dust under a stained carpet, hauling someone’s suitcase up the stairs, even feeding the donkeys in a little pen. Breathing heavily, she was climbing the hill back up to the castle gate, and we saw that in her hands she was carrying a package of butter.