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Phillips, A. (1999). Promises, Promises. Contemp. Psychoanal., 35(1):81-89.

(1999). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 35(1):81-89

Promises, Promises

Adam Phillips

In the lecture room he seemed to sit apart and be absorbed in something else, as if the subject suggested thoughts to him which were not practically connected with it. He was often in the subject and out of it, in a dreamy way.

Henry Stephens's recollections of Keats as a medical student

I WANT TO OFFER A DISARRAY of reflections on this subject because I cannot come to any interesting conclusions about it. That is to say, I don't have a line on psychoanalysis and literature, which isn't a version of saying either that reading literature is similar to the experience of analysis or that it is very different (both of which I believe). If I don't think of literature as merely illuminating or confirming the so-called insights of psychoanalysis, I'm also aware that psychoanalysis seems to be of a piece with the broader cultural conversation that seems to be going on in what I think of as literature.

For me—undoubtedly for all sorts of reasons—there has always been only one category, literature, of which psychoanalysis became a part. I think of Freud as a late romantic writer, and I read psychoanalysis as poetry, so I don't have to worry about whether it is true or even useful, but only whether it is haunting or moving or intriguing or amusing—whether it is something I can't help but be interested in. Literature and psychoanalysis, in other words, are forms of persuasion. “The study of literature,” poet J. V. Cunningham (1997) wrote, “is not in the ordinary sense to further the understanding of ourselves. It is rather to enable us to see how we could think and feel otherwise than as we do.” Similarly, psychoanalysis, through written and spoken words, persuades us to feel otherwise. It is first and foremost a rhetorical practice. And yet, of course, we practice psychoanalysis in a way we don't exactly think of ourselves as practicing literature.

Psychoanalysis is itself a body of literature as well as an oral tradition, but it is also a more or less definable social practice, a therapy (albeit of relatively recent invention).

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