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On Getting Better – Adam Phillips

by Venky

(Image Credit: https://www.phillips.com)

In a collection of deeply technical essays, practising psychoanalyst Adam Philips in “On Getting Better” deals with a variegated set of experiences relating to the quest for self-improvement. A child slowly but surely gets used to missing her mother and getting used to people who are for her “not-mothers” and in the process assimilates the experience of experiencing such interactions with and presence of not-mothers. This also paves the way for a severing of restricted family experiences and a totally new experience that has at its nub the outside world.

As Phillips reiterates, at times, the drive for self-improvement might itself be the problem. Phillips also reveals how a sense of reticence can be a masquerade for attention seeking. Drawing his readers attention to the work of Sigmund Freud, Phillips reproduces the observations of the founder of psychoanalysis: “I can only allow myself to realise I love performing and showing off by describing myself as very shy. I can only tell myself of my desire for someone by claiming that they are repulsive to me and of no interest whatsoever.” The last observation is profoundly telling and one which we all would have experienced personally at some juncture or the other in life. A scorned and a jilted lover invariably tends to nurse an acerbic and adverse reaction/opinion towards his/her former object of attraction, or obsession even.

One of Sigmund Freud’s foremost followers Alfred Adler interestingly stated that following psychoanalytical sessions with his patients, he would always pose this question to them: “What would you do if you were cured?” Upon receiving a response, Adler would exhort his patients to “well go and do it, then.’ This illustrates that the cure proposed by psychoanalysis goes beyond the normal ken and confines of the expression using which the nature of ‘cure’ is understood. Adler’s strategy (which consequently came to be known as existentialist psychoanalysis), aimed at the cure of an inhibition and not a disease. Hence psychoanalysis does not profess to offer a cure but provide a shield against indoctrination. This it does by facilitating an unbiased and clinical enquiry into the myriad of ways in which human beings influence and are influenced mutually, and how an individual shrugs away the cocoons of impediments that threaten to put paid to her possibilities for self-development and growth.

At times the concept of cure may be so vague as to evade the very purpose and objective for which it is sought. This is akin to many journeys undertaken by us in life. There are some journeys where the destination is apparent, while there are others where the terminus is indeterminate. There is also a third kind of journey where we need not know about the destination. Where we land up finally represents a variable that is immaterial. Psychoanalysts such as Wilfred Bion and Marion Milner, claimed that too definite and ascertainable destinations were themselves, ‘saboteurs’ of psychoanalytic treatment.

Phillips writes in a turning and twisting manner and brings a dialectical feel to the narration. This is a very essential feature considering the subjects dealt with by him in his capacity of a practising psychoanalyst- truth, boredom, excitement, unsatisfying pleasures, inhibitions, cure and care. Phillips has reiterated that, psychoanalysis “is a picture of a relationship, of sociability, in which there is no propaganda, indoctrination, coercion, submission, intimidation, authority or teaching”. And this is the keystone that threads throughout this engaging slim volume.

(On Getting Better by Adam Phillips is published by Picador Books and will be available for sale from the 4th of January, 2022)

Thank You Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy

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