Conversation rather than conversion is vital in the consulting room – is that the same for politics?
Those who find writing a chore are better off not knowing about the literary method of Adam Phillips. Every Wednesday he walks to his office in Notting Hill. On this brief journey some idea begins to take shape, usually related to his day job (Phillips is a Freudian psychoanalyst who spends the rest of the week seeing patients). So long as this notion sparks his interest it will – by the time he sits down at his computer – have been transmuted into his first sentence. The next hours are spent unfurling that sentence into an essay, which typically forms part of a collection. Over 30 years this routine has produced almost as many books, in Phillips’s breezy, aphoristic style, on topics ranging from monogamy to sanity to democracy.
The ease of Phillips’s prose is conditioned by his reluctance to “convince” anyone, including himself. The author treats his readers like his patients, aiming to provoke and stimulate rather than persuade. Yet if psychoanalysis – and psychoanalytic literature – is a discourse concerned with change, how is this achieved without arguing, lecturing or coaxing? Is there a paradigm for altering another person from which coercion is entirely absent? That is the question Phillips poses – with a note of anxiety about his own literary and therapeutic practice – in On Wanting to Change. If there is “something pernicious about the wish to persuade people; or rather to persuade people by disarming them in some way”, then psychoanalysis offers “a form of honest persuasion. Or that, at least, is what it aspires to be.”