On Not Knowing Yourself: What’s Adam Phillips Saying About Life Story?

ADAM PHILLIPS’S recent biography Becoming Freud recounts a brief anecdote, one that conceals a meta-commentary, a key to how the book will want to frame its subject and his audacious project. In 1936, Freud is approached by a writer wishing to become his official biographer. In reply, the great theorist unloads, in rapid succession, some half-dozen reasons why he won’t consent:

To be a biographer you must tie yourself up in lies, concealments, hypocrisies, false colorings, and even in hiding a lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had, and if it were to be had we could not use it … truth is not feasible, mankind doesn’t deserve it, and anyway isn’t our Prince Hamlet right when he says that if we all had our deserts, which one of us would “scape whipping”?

The protest is duly registered, but it’s possible to shoot something dead enough that it starts to flop around again like a living thing. Biography, seen here as threatening or epistemologically filthy enough such that Freud won’t lay hands on it, is, as we know, his true subject; it’s exactly the thing he’s always handling. Psychoanalysis had meant to rob the stories we told about our lives of their superficial coherence, their unearned claim on the real. It told us, famously, that man was not the master of his own house, that our self-knowledge was stitched with wishes. Autobiography was the story one told because the truth was not safe, and because it did not seem feasible to let one’s life go unspoken for. And yet, nothing in intellectual history did as much to vivify and invest us in a narrative approach to selfhood than Freud’s new science.

This is, in so many words, the obsessive, overriding focus of Phillips’s biography of Freud; that biography itself, after Freud, is a changed mode. It’s no longer what happened but instead the language game of what happened. Despite its notorious anatomical preoccupations (“anatomy is destiny,” Freud had said), it’s worth emphasizing how language-dominated the psychoanalytic view of personhood is. The body and its illnesses are among the things psychoanalysis will see as systems of symbol and story. The clinical situation itself was essentially an empty vase, filled only by the unreliable content we could conjure to meet the imperative to “free associate.” As recompense, we were offered words — interruption, interpretation — and the withholding of words.

But if psychoanalysis was medicine by means of words only, it was at least treatment capable of acknowledging the disease words could be. The horizon of the therapeutic ambition was that one story might be replaced by another, a story that would allow “neurotic misery” to be replaced by “everyday unhappiness.” The story could be remembered, its member parts arranged again and differently, rather than compulsively repeated in life; repeated as life. Perhaps it was verbal habit, not anatomy, that was destiny.

Despite a chorus of denouncers who sing still, a crude outline of psychoanalytic insight was widely adopted, and, unsurprisingly, in a rather wish-fulfilling manner. An idea bled into general culture that the true story of a life might be unearthed, that it was merely buried beneath a false one, and that psychoanalysis was allied to this work (Freud’s preference for archeological metaphor fed this understanding). If self-narrative was the space where realness was to be found or recovered, any allocation of attention to it was warranted. (The hope that self-absorption lies en route to emancipation has lost no attraction.) On the one hand, Freud’s tireless labors truly were, as Lionel Trilling wrote, a searching and original response to the ancient injunction to know thyself. The luster of these labors — the glow of enlightenment and complication, the glamour of giving up illusions — were useful for sophisticated consumers in a culture of incessant self-development. And yet, from within the psychoanalytic frame, there was no escaping the conclusion that our stories were repressions of ourselves. This last claim remains wholly unmarketable. The culture can’t even hear it.

This torsion — this burning desire for knowledge and profound disenchantment with what knowing actually amounts to — was a fundamental condition of Freud’s life and work, and it still lends charge to the intellectual tradition he founded. Phillips quotes a letter from Freud to his then-fiancé Martha Bernays announcing that he has destroyed his notes and correspondence of the previous 14 years: “All my thoughts and feelings about the world in general and myself in particular have been found unworthy of further existence. They will now have to be thought all over again.” The melodramatic self-reproach is notable for what it doesn’t find fault with: namely, with himself, and with what we sometimes call “life itself.” There are moods in which one wants to say that experience, whatever else it is, is whole. Disposable conceptual models and self-serving character sketches — Freud was an energetic producer of both — don’t deserve claim to it. In what for Freud is a kind of melancholy impasse, Phillips sees the opportunity for what is at once an ethical injunction and practical maxim, writing “[w]e should not be substituting the truths of our desire with trumped-up life stories, stories that we publicize.”

Admittedly, Phillips’s Freud can sound like Phillips speaking from behind the Freud mask. By turning his biography of Freud into the story of Freud’s ambivalences about biography, he bends the arc of psychoanalytic inquiry so as to lead us to the edge of a question he’s been circling in his own essays. His provocation and plea about self-narrative and the variety of self-knowledge it promises is, at root, beguilingly plain: what if we simply went without it?


Phillips’s recent collection, Unforbidden Pleasures, begins with an epigraph taken from Tristram Shandy: “—to define—is to distrust.” This terse, caesura-cut construction glosses a core concern for him. We are helpless definers: we keep claiming the void, hedging against emptiness, managing the amorphous and mutable by a proliferation of labels and explanatory shorthand. This defining is incessant work, and made worse by a relative lack of variety. Experience is myriad and dynamic, and if this judgment seems slanted, too willfully healthy, we can at least agree that experience is slippery. It wobbles at the touch, recedes when inspected, refuses to hold a shape as stable or firm as our evaluations. We’ve had enough wakeful moments to know this and still we repeat to ourselves the same handful of fairly boring observations about “life,” and its ostensible setting “the world,” and the vessel by which we travel it (“I”). If such pat content came to us from the mouth or pen of another person we would not long suffer it. But we tend to believe ourselves, and this is probably a mistake.

This glib description of inner discourse, however unflattering, isn’t news. Phillips’s intervention is to ask us to see these habits as concealing a kind of bad faith and wounded scope. As he says in an interview with the Paris Review:

When people say, “I’m the kind of person who,” my heart always sinks. These are formulas, we’ve all got about ten formulas about who we are, what we like, the kind of people we like, all that stuff. The disparity between these phrases and how one experiences oneself minute by minute is ludicrous. It’s like the caption under a painting. You think, Well, yeah, I can see it’s called that. But you need to look at the picture.

Description becomes proscription. Authentic insight into oneself, repeated enough, calcifies into self-curtailment. There’s a sense in which self-definition arrests the free and unscripted play of relating to ourselves, in the same way that the hasty definition of another person, the undue assurance that we know them, narrows the range of experiences we are likely to have with them. A real relation is vulnerable to the actuality of other people, and to other instincts within ourselves. A real relation is therefore always a risk, and this is why we so rarely allow one to happen. “We do not believe in our lives,” Stanley Cavell once wrote, “so we trade them for stories.” We know in advance how these stories end, and that is their appeal: experience adheres to our precepts.

The danger is that we may become ventriloquized by a story we have told about ourselves and believe to be vested with the prestige of an authoritative interpretation. Freud thought he found “an intimate connection between the story of a patient’s sufferings and the symptoms of his illness.” The story was at once an attempt at pain management and a cause of our suffering. We do not want our pain (except for when we do), but, Phillips reminds, we express enormous wishfulness in our descriptions of pain. We have much invested in these descriptions and in the picture of reality they convey. We have considerable incentive, psychically and socially, to build a durable discourse for the self and its suffering. New experience confirms rather than alters the narrative logic.

Though this “self-talk” is no one’s doing but our own, often much of it ends up set against oneself. In “Against Self-Criticism,” the remarkable central essay of Unforbidden Pleasures, Phillips pulls at a rotten thread woven within our stories of self. There is a powerful capacity in us — Freud called it “superego” — that prejudges us, which is an intractable stereotyper. This part of our mind pulls away to condemn of the rest of the psyche, which presumes knowledge of the worth of our wishes and of the compromises our wishes make with reality. “The superego […] casts us as certain kinds of character,” Phillips writes, “it, as it were, tells us who we really are; it is an essentialist; it claims to know us in a way that no one else, including ourselves, can ever do.” Superego says that underneath our efforts and best intentions lies something more suspect. Why, Phillips will beg us to ask, does it respect effort and intention so little? And how did it acquire this claim on the actual?

Within the superego’s narrow discourse, few things seem as appropriate as the deferral of self-love, as delaying an undaunted mode of life. “So frightened are we by the superego,” Phillips writes, “that we identify with it: we speak on its behalf to avoid antagonizing it.” A bureaucratic voice drones on within consciousness, passionlessly employed in our own service. Its repetitive soliloquy drowns out other interpretive possibility, offers stop-gap satisfactions of self-knowledge that stop us from other kinds of knowing. Our stories of why we are inadequate tend to be our least imaginative and yet our most convincing. We feel duty-bound to believe the tales, issuing as they do from a register of ruthless certitude. We are, to tweak a line from Stevens, the emperors of not enough ideas about ourselves.

One of Phillips’s most salient assertions is that we truly don’t know who we’d be or how we’d live without the accumulated judgment that plays a large part in our verbal relationship to self. “We know almost nothing about ourselves because we judge ourselves before we have a chance to see ourselves.” One use of biography or self-criticism might be to save us the uncertainty of observing ourselves in the wild, or observing the wildness in ourselves. Some modes of self-knowledge evolve to end wonder. As Phillips’s writes, “[W]hen we judge the self it can’t be known; guilt hides it in the guise of exposing it.”

In its most idealistic renderings, psychoanalysis meant to be a wedge against this internalization of moralistic terror, which Freud associated with Judeo-Christian religion. As Jacqueline Rose reminds us, “It is axiomatic for psychoanalysis that no one is ever demeaned by the unconscious.” Freud used the word die Würde — the dignity or worth of the psyche. This emphasis doesn’t survive in the general culture. We vaguely feel psychoanalysis supports the opposite view: our unconscious wishes must be inherently unlovely and unlovable, given that they require such diligent management. Surely the way of self-development, we imagine, is a more rigorous and searching repressive regime, a further overcoming of vagary, ambivalence, and error.

“How has it come about,” Phillips asks, “that we so enjoy this picture of ourselves […] as objects of judgment and censorship? What is this appetite for confinement, for diminishment, for unrelenting, unforgiving self-criticism?” One answer could be that this laceration is an incredible indulgence of oneself; it is to be permitted a sort of self-obsession, and allowed, moreover, to feel righteous about it. Also wrapped in the punishment is the compensatory fantasy that we know what we are and what we deserve, that shame and guilt are not only warranted but are meted out to us on a scale commensurate with the worth and dimension of our truest selves. By such cruelty the self is made to feel solid.

Who has not suffered it — this narcissism aping ethical seriousness? Instead of being “proud of ourselves” we are as often proud of our stupid prejudices against ourselves, and reluctant to relinquish them, as though our inner reproaches were the engine of our moral imaginations. Phillips writes: “We must be the only animal that lives as though this grandiose absurdity were true.”

But, in lieu of this, what? “What are we, after all,” he asks on behalf of our skepticism, “but our powers of discrimination, our taste, the violence of our preferences?” And what utopianism of inner life is going to upend this dispensation? Phillips observes the irony that nothing arouses our critical faculty, whether in bemusement or anger, like the suggestion that it might be wrong about us, and that we might rely on it less. “A life without […] [it] would seem an idiocy, though quite what kind of idiocy is not entirely clear.”

Phillips has said that a genuinely effectual analysis might do two things: recover appetite and gain freedom from the need to know oneself. On the latter score, such gains are likely to be modest, but perhaps modest gains matter. The thrill of “Against Self-Criticism” is its utterly sympathetic raid on a mental operation that we know won’t actually be done away with. Nor do we need it to be. We merely want a seam of freedom pried open against its stifling predominance. Such a seam, far from any ascent to holiness or descent to ego-death, would allow for the proliferation of interpretive options, for an exercise of agency and imagination that would replace the compulsion to swallow whole whatever rote story our fear or flimsy “self-knowledge” offer up by force of habit:

You can only understand anything that matters — dreams, neurotic symptoms, people, literature — by overinterpreting it; by seeing it […] as the product of multiple impulses. [This] […] means not settling for a single interpretation, however apparently compelling. The implication […] is that the more persuasive, the more authoritative the interpretation the less credible it is, or should be.


Conscience, in its all too impoverished vocabulary and its all too serious and suffocating drama, needs to be overinterpreted. Underinterpreted […] it can only be propaganda (the super-ego only speaks propaganda about the self, which is why it is so boring, and yet so easy to listen to).

Here, at least, is something one can do: “Forget certain words and use less familiar ones instead, and see what happens.” We can renounce the voluntary poverty of our verbal resource lest we preempt what we are or might become, lest our lives rehearse fixed circuits of words and our words amount to no more than tendentious interpretations of our lives.

As Susan Sontag writes in her famous jeremiad against the wrong kind of knowing, “In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.” We won’t dissolve the paradox that to forge narrative from life is at once a psychic and social accomplishment of a high order and an impediment to lives we might want. It requires no recourse to psychoanalysis to say that selfhood involves the naturalizing of fictions, and that when the lives lived out of given stories run aground or run only in a loop, the fictions can be renovated by a return to the phenomenal experiences from which they extrapolate. We do not know all the names that would call the animals out from the wood, and we do not know all the animals there are.


Brandon Kreitler’s poems have appeared in Boston ReviewDIAGRAMWeb ConjunctionsIndiana ReviewEoaghSonora Review, and Maggy. His criticism has appeared in The Brooklyn RailProximity, and Village Voice, among others.