Freud and Kafka Revisited
Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst
by Adam Phillips
Yale University Press, 2014
Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt
by Saul Friedländer
Yale University Press, 2013
How does personal change come about? Two new biographies, of Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka, offer us some tantalizing clues.
The literary critic Harold Bloom declared back in 1986 that Freudian ideas “have begun to merge with our culture, and indeed now form the only Western mythology that contemporary intellectuals have in common.” But nearly thirty years later, that doesn’t ring so true. In a May 2014 review in the New Yorker, book critic Joan Acocella swatted away the topic with a dismissive aside: “Why fuss over psychoanalysis, so seldom practiced today?” The mystique of psychoanalysis seems to have evaporated.
For the British psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips this is a welcome development. A former general editor of the new Penguin Modern Classics translations of Freud’s texts, Phillips has for years been exploring the ways in which psychoanalysis can help us lead more pleasurable lives—lives rooted in the richness of interpersonal relationships and in an ever-renewed sense of wonder at the dynamics of our social, political, and spiritual lives. In an earlier essay he writes, “Psychoanalysis—as a form of conversation—is worth having only if it makes our lives more interesting, or funnier, or sadder, or more tormented, or whatever it is about ourselves that we value and want to promote; and especially if it helps us find new things about ourselves that we didn’t know we could value.” This is teasing, seductive, and illuminating—and a new way of writing about psychoanalysis that forgoes jargon and opens up lines of thinking from which anyone who works professionally with others (teachers, therapists, social workers, clergy, health professionals, etc.) can benefit.
Phillips is interested in turning psychoanalysis from being a so-called helping profession into something more radical and universally relevant: a “curiosity profession.” His concept of psychoanalysis as “a conversation that enables people to understand what stops them having the kinds of conversation they want, and how they have come to believe that these particular conversations are worth wanting” opens up to anyone interested in the dynamics of interpersonal relationships—with one’s parents, one’s partner, one’s friends, one’s siblings, one’s lovers, or one’s colleagues—a deeper understanding of potential routes toward enhanced intimacy or engagement in such relationships, as well as the repertoire of unconscious ways we have of subverting our best intentions in relation to each other.
A Self-Reflexive Approach to Biography
Although Phillips’s first book, Winnicott, explored the ideas of the British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, Becoming Freud is his first venture into biography. The new series of “Jewish Lives” biographies published by Yale University Press are not traditional fact-and-interpretation biographies; they are self-styled “interpretive biographies,” in which subjects are paired with authors who can offer lively, idiosyncratic, and informed insights into a range of characters such as King David, Moshe Dayan, Moses Mendelssohn, Emma Goldman, and Groucho Marx. But with characteristic playfulness, Phillips’s opening chapter raises important questions about the entire genre.
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Cooper, Howard. 2015. Freud and Kafka Revisited. Tikkun 30(2): 49.