Adam Phillips, psychotherapist and essayist, can be a frustratingly elliptical writer. There are allusions, suggestions, shadings and hints in every passage. (I seem to dimly remember a frustrated reviewer in the New York or London Review of Books complaining about this characteristic slipperiness.) From these though, the diligent reader can often find a perspicuous insight, and perhaps even more interestingly and appropriately–given the very indirection of the prose–raw material for speculation of his own. The following passage is an interesting sample: sometimes direct, sometimes suggestive, sometimes inclined to a mysterious universalization:
If the Enlightenment Freud instructs us in a new science of self-knowing–of familiarizing ourselves–the post-Freudian Freud suggests that the problem of self-knowledge is itself the problem, the symptom masquerading as the cure; as though we have turned the self into an object (the project of the Enlightenment Freud), even an idol, and psychoanalysis can now help us unlearn this modern religion of self-hood. The unconscious–whatever is strange, or seems foreign about ourselves–is exactly what makes our old habits of self, like knowing and understanding, sound irrelevant, off-key. An inner revisionist, it disarms our competence, like someone suddenly pointing out to us that we have been playing chess with the rules of draughts. The unconscious, in other words, is what stops self-knowledge turning, it always does, into self-caricature (self-definition is always complicit with self-mockery). When we make a slip of the tongue, something in us speaks out of turn. It does not speak more truthfully, but it speaks as well. And at that moment, we don’t know where it came from. It gives us pause. In psychoanalysis, as the critic Mark Edmundson says of poetry, ‘one must affirm invention at the expense of argument.’
First, the mysteries: what does it mean to say that ‘self-knowledge always turns into self-caricature’ or that ‘self-definition is always complicit with self-mockery’? Perhaps that attempts at total self-knowledge runs the risk of constructing distorted images of ourselves? But why the ‘mockery’ and the ‘caricature’? Why not idealization and praise? Phillips goes no further than the bare statements he provides us. What makes them tantalizing–or frustrating, depending on your perspective–is that Phillips had the option of making a much weaker and more plausible claim but chose not to. We are left to puzzle this out.
Second, more interestingly, a conception of the unconscious as the grab-bag term for whatever is unknown about ourselves. Though it is not clear what is meant by the unconscious being our ‘inner revisonist’ it is transparent what role it plays in our view of ourselves: where we find mystery or inexplicability in our understandings of ourselves, where are our attempts at self-knowledge come to a grinding halt, we point to the unconscious. It is a universal explanans of sorts, one that points to the uncomfortable fact that we are strangers to ourselves and will remain so. And as the closing quote suggests, it is the unconscious that gives us grounds for being inventive about ourselves, for imagining that within us lurks far more complexity than we might have imagined, many more selves than the one(s) immediately visible.
Excerpt from: Terrors and Experts, Faber and Faber, London, 1995.