On the front cover of his latest book, Going Sane, Adam Phillips is billed as “the closest thing we have to a philosopher of happiness”, but he doesn’t look too cheerful this evening. He has just been introduced by Richard Holloway, the maverick former Bishop of Edinburgh, as the “Alain de Botton of psychoanalysis”, but there is no way of telling if he thinks this a compliment. Phillips looks impassive, even a little bored, but might secretly be biting his lip.
A tendency towards the aloof and the inscrutable, however, probably comes with the job. Phillips is a London-based psychoanalyst, a prolific author and a recognised authority on Freud. This evening he is in Edinburgh to put in an appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. More than 200 people have turned out to see him - a full house, or rather a full tent, given that the festival takes place in the middle of a huge garden. Phillips is a swarthy man in his early fifties with a mop of unruly greying hair. With his green suede jacket and maroon shirt, he is the epitome of middle-aged smooth, like the don of some decadent liberal arts college. When he is invited by Holloway to read from his book, he sits down in his chair and speaks delicately and deliberately, holding the book up close to his face.
After Phillips has finished reading, Holloway begins by asking him about his enthusiasm for Freud. Where people go wrong with Freud, says Phillips, is that they imagine his writing is an instruction book on how to live, rather than an inspiration that should evoke ideas of one’s own. He goes on to talk about the difference between hunger and sexual desire. “By virtue of our having once been children,” he says, “our need for parents’ love is always greater than their need for us.” Later in life, this leads inevitably to a gulf between the fantasy and the reality of love. The difference between hunger and sexual appetite is that hunger is a biological need that can be satisfied, whereas love is a desire which cannot - and should not - be fully sated. To be entirely satisfied in the realm of sexual desire would be a catastrophe, according to Phillips. “That is the person we must not find.” None of this can be said to be true of hunger. There is a wriggle of laughter.
Phillips speaks in punchy, easy-to-digest aphorisms which have the merit of enviable lucidity. Sanity, he says, “is about learning to enjoy conflict”. Relationships “are not the kind of thing one can succeed or fail at, any more than one can succeed or fail at having red hair”. Depression, according to Phillips, “is about managing a lack of desire”. We should excise the word disappointment from our vocabulary, he says - “there is nothing to be disappointed about”. The art of romantic relationships, he reckons, “is to know when one is over”.
The atmosphere is civilised and genteel, a quiet caucus for the determinedly self-aware. One woman begins to ask a question, only to find that she has forgotten what she wanted to say. “I think that is probably significant,” says Phillips drily. “Certainly Dr Freud would think so,” quips Holloway. A doctor puts up his hand to argue that there are simply not enough psychotherapeutic resources to deal with the huge burden of depression in many areas of our inner cities. But Phillips is realistic about what good psychotherapy can do. It is, he says, “simply not everybody’s cup of tea”. He has nothing against the medical cure. “All suffering,” he says, ladling on another spoonful of wisdom, “is pointless.” The talking cure, he implies, will only ever be for the discerning few - those, presumably, who have both the time to talk and the money to spend.
Before he became a psychoanalyst, Phillips read English at Oxford University, and he scatters his homilies with literary allusions. When a woman inquires about the import of kindness, he argues that, at least in Shakespeare, kindness refers to the solidarity among human kind. Nowadays, however, there is little solidarity around. “Often,” he says, “people can’t bear other people, never mind themselves.” One man, perhaps in an attempt to leaven the tone, wants Phillips to comment on the mental health of the prime minister, but he flatly refuses to take the bait. “I don’t want to say anything about the prime minister,” Phillips retorts. “I was at university with him.”
The elderly woman who forgot her question earlier has now remembered it. Phillips is the editor of a new set of translations of Freud’s work, and her question is really a grumble about why it took so long for the Scots to discover Freud. Phillips skates over the Scottish question in favour of a disquisition on why Freud remains so relevant in the here and now. In previous translations, says Phillips, there was a tendency to make Freud sound more scientific than he actually was - his edition is designed to correct that. He prefers to think of Freud as a great writer and artist, throwing out glimpses of insight and truth along the way. It is a good enough estimation of the reason for Phillips’s own success - he is, after all, a gifted storyteller for an introverted age.