Reading Today

This is a thing I wrote a couple of weeks ago, but which I was too anxious to post until now. There will be a number of things that I wrote a while ago and was too anxious to post on this blog. Unless I’m too anxious to post them. 

I was angry at myself for getting sucked into Adam Phillips’s recent interview in the Paris Review, mostly because I’d been postponing work for far too long already when I came across it, but I was also a little dismayed by two facts. The first: that I know little about Adam Phillips except that I once delivered a paper about the fact that I think the Strachey translations are basically an abomination and misrepresent Freud in essential ways. After my talk, I was told by a very erudite scholar and psychoanalyst that the two new translations that were being prepared, lamentably, did little to rectify the issues I argued against in my talk. One was basically a gentle update of the Standard Edition, and the other was edited by a literati whose command of German was meager at best. One of these– and I couldn’t remember which when I started reading the interview– was Adam Phillips. The second: That I’m somewhat skeptical of the Paris Review at times (so nostalgically modernist; so clearly the highest part of the middle brow), and even more skeptical about the fact that I’d stumbled on this interview via, which, though amusing, is not normally, um, a source of intellectual stimulation for me. I did a little quick Googling just now and Phillips, it turns out, is both a dilettante when it comes to translation and an advocate of Strachey, so perhaps I misremembered that conversation. See the very helpful comments to this LRB essay that he published.

The interview, conducted with admirable skill by Paul Holdengräber, is bizarre at many points, but nowhere more so than in the following exchange, also cited by Kottke:


Appetite is a word that often comes up when you talk about psychoanalysis.


Analysis should do two things that are linked together. It should be about the recovery of appetite, and the need not to know yourself. And these two things—


The need not to know yourself. Symptoms are forms of self-knowledge. When you think, I’m agoraphobic, I’m a shy person, whatever it may be, these are forms of self-knowledge. What psychoanalysis, at its best, does is cure you of your self-knowledge. And of your wish to know yourself in that coherent, narrative way. You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself. Because the point of knowing oneself is to contain one’s anxieties about appetite. It’s only worth knowing about the things that make one’s life worth living, and whether there are in fact things that make it worth living.

I was a child psychotherapist for most of my professional life. One of the things that is interesting about children is how much appetite they have. How much appetite they have—but also how conflicted they can be about their appetites. Anybody who’s got young children, or has had them, or was once a young child, will remember that children are incredibly picky about their food. They can go through periods where they will only have an orange peeled in a certain way. Or milk in a certain cup.

The quote struck me as a revelation, and not only because of its admirable succinctness as a way of understanding psychoanalysis’s effect on our understanding of what it means to be a human being, more normally discussed in academic circles with some overladen and unappealing jargon, and much grander ambitions (Socrates! Kant! Modernity!) than in Phillip’s account. Far more importantly, of course: It provided me with a new means of thinking about my own therapy and what it was that I was trying to accomplish there. What if the point isn’t to understand the relationship between some current inadequacy, real or perceived, in my person and the traumas of my childhood but is, instead, to simply forget that I have come to consider myself a certain kind of person, sometimes against all evidence to the contrary.

Maybe this account resonated so thoroughly with me because I’ve been struggling with my appetite, in the most immediate of ways, for a while now. I used to take pleasure in food, and have always been an adventurous eater. Of late though, I find that few foods appeal to me, and even those that do produce little pleasure and less anticipation. This along with a more general loss of interest in life’s sensual pleasures. I have little interest in the feeling of health that comes after a good workout at the moment, little pleasure in a hot shower, and I’d like to have sex again, sometimes desperately even, but then again, I find the prospect of being with a woman strangely off-putting at the moment, and have positively no interest in any of the flirtations that, in one form or another, necessarily precede sex, or at least the sort of sex I might be interested in having.

Of course I’ve tried any number of ways to understand this loss of desire, this loss of appetite: Pharmacological (my psychiatrist: “you’ll know the drugs are working when your appetite has returned”), psychoanalytic (my therapist, pointing always towards a childhood trauma: “and why do you think you feel that way?”). And then, of course, with the whole apparatus of my intellectual training: Kafka in “The Hunger Artist,” Robert Burton on the melancholy of the scholar, Balzac complaining to a woman he’d just slept with that he’d wasted a novel, Walker Percy on immanent and transcendent relationships to life. Not to mention the whole long traditions of asceticism, stoicism, and even that little, likely misleading, bit that I know about Buddhism.

Then along comes Phillips and suggests that the thing to do is just to forget it, just not to know yourself! This makes perfect sense to me. I’ve convinced myself that, though I’m a great boyfriend, I’m a lousy player, and that goes some very large way towards making that true. And Phillips basically points this out. Forget that anxiety about how bad you think you are at hitting on women, what horrible anxiety and what feelings of guilt it produces in you, and then they’ll be gone. Like it’s that simple. What an asshole! But maybe with the right therapist, or the right approach to therapy it could be. What a liberation! He expands on this, and the interview continues, after the section I quoted above to say:


[….] Another of the early analysts, a Welshman called Ernest Jones, had an idea that, interestingly, sort of disappeared. He believed that everybody’s deepest fear was loss of desire, what he called aphanisis. For him that’s the thing we’re most acutely anxious about, having no desire. People now might call it depression, but it wouldn’t be the right word for it, because he’s talking about a very powerful anxiety of living in a world in which there’s nothing and nobody one wants. But it can be extremely difficult to know what you want, especially if you live in a consumer, capitalist culture which is phobic of frustration—where the moment you feel a glimmer of frustration, there’s something available to meet it. Now, shopping and eating and sex may not be what you’re wanting, but in order to find that out you have to have a conversation with somebody. You can’t sit in a room by yourself like Rodin’s Thinker.

So then what is it that I do desire, in lieu of those sensual pleasures? At the moment it seems to be this: I want to write. I want to write very, very well, and I would also like that writing to provide me with some recognition and, just as importantly, some income. But I find writing difficult and exhausting, and though the pleasure I take in it is very real, I also find it easy to be distracted by other, more immediate pleasures. And so what have I done? I’ve either suppressed those desires entirely or generated anxieties around them to isolate myself from the possibility of their incursion on the space of my writing, a process facilitated by the fact that I’ve been smoking far too much pot recently, though I’ve also certainly managed to go through similar periods of disinterest and apathy while perfectly sober. And in point of fact, I feel just fine, generally about going through an ascetic period at the moment. I feel more productive right now than I have in years, and though that’s almost certainly largely because the long and mostly unrewarding odyssey of my graduate education is finally behind me, I also think it’s at least partially due to the fact that my life has grown very simple and uncomplicated, and I rather like it that way.

For me the precondition for being truly alright with a life stripped to the necessary, for me, would be a full return of a specific kind of appetite that I used to have in droves, but which abandoned me right around the time I started grad school: the desire to read. When I finish with my work for the day now the routine is almost invariably the same. Turn on the music, either classical or hip hop. Roll a spliff. Open Civilization 5, continue smoking and playing until bedtime. Make a frozen pizza, if you have one, at some point. Grow accustomed the fact that you will likely either burn it or let it grow cold before you eat.

How much better it would be if I closed the computer and read a book! But I tried that today and made it 11 pages into Pierre Vilar’s A History of Gold and Money: 1450-1920 when I grew excited by the following suggestion:

Perhaps it is not clear what an unshakeably stable monetary system would mean for capitalism. If it existed the heirs of a man who had invested a penny at compound interest 2,000 years ago, would long since have given up all productive activity to live off this one investment. All progress reduces the value of the objects produced, and if a single stable monetary system existed, a perpetual fall in prices would have continually discouraged produces and sellers, for whom the prospect of increases is the best stimulus.

The very structure of capitalism requires that it defeat itself, and in such simple & specific terms!  But I also grew worried that this idea was likely old hat– derived from some part of Marx’s Capital I haven’t read, or that it might discussed at great lengths in Piketty, which would mean that I would feel stupid if I referenced it in public. I also felt compelled to do some back of the envelope calculations, lest I be corrected in that way, and determined that, if the interest on a penny had been compounded annually for 2000 years and the profits were then split between descendants whose numbers double every eighty years, then the current descendants would each receive a share of 835 billion dollars. And of course that number assumes any number of things that are likely untrue– that no money was spent until now, that population rates double every eighty years on average, and that the investment paid off at 3.5%– but even if I’m off by a factor of a thousand it seems likely that none of those descendants would ever in their lives have had to lift a finger.

This, at any rate, produced a certain anxiety in me– why hadn’t I read the Piketty, or, for that matter, more Marx. I mean, when the book of the moment is a grand treatise on historical economics that everyone is talking about, why would a decidedly lay reader of economic history decide to pick up a similar book published in Barcelona in 1969? So really I had to read the Piketty. But then I remembered that I’d already– that very morning-– decided that it was urgent that I read Adam Phillips, as well as Winnicott and Ernest Jones and that I’d ordered ten books over the last few weeks, none of which I’d yet read, and all of which had seemed essential when I’d purchased them. But this urgency had since vanished, and what I wanted to be reading now was either more Vilar, in which case I’d have to read at least the Piketty, and probably also Das Kapital, which, if I was going to get anything out of it, would mean that I’d have to also find some guide. Maybe David Harvey, though I’d have to think about it. But then Adam Phillips on the loss of appetite, in which case I’d likely have to order it and it would take a week or two to get here, or else, God forbid, go to the library, where I can’t smoke and I’ll end up spending twenty Euros on five burned coffees and a soggy sandwich. But still, if not Adam Phillips, then Ernest Jones. Or Phillips, Jones, and Winnicott. But then there’s the stack of contemporary Berlin authors I’ve been wanting to get to, and all of the books that just came from Verso. And they don’t require leaving the house, and were the subject of similar excitations when I ordered them a couple weeks ago.

So I’m given to a certain wonder and a certain skepticism especially when Phillips talks about how he reads, and it seems like he very willfully takes his own advice to not know himself:

 If you happen to like reading, it can have a very powerful effect on you, an evocative effect, at least on me. It’s not as though when I read I’m gathering information, or indeed can remember much of what I read. I know the books that grip me, as everybody does, but their effect is indiscernible. I don’t quite know what it is. The Leavisite position, more or less, is that reading certain sentences makes you more alive and a morally better person, and that those two things go together. It seems to me that that isn’t necessarily so, but what is clear is that there are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. There’s something about these books that we want to go on thinking about, that matters to us. They’re not just fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about.

This attitude towards reading (which is why I decided it was alright to smoke a spliff before I started the Vilar), seems so attractive, and so desirous, so reminiscent of the way I used to read before I was too well educated, but then one wonders how Phillips, if he doesn’t seek to retain information when he reads, has managed to edit the new Penguin translations of Freud, to prepare the biography he is about to publish, and to write so many, many books. For my part, I’ll smoke another spliff, and try to eat something more than the smoothie I had for lunch.

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