Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Focus Pocus

Wake up! When your therapist is sleeping.
Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips (interview by Paul Holdengräber, Paris Review, Spring 2014):
What interests me most is when people are trying to be on the subject and can’t help but go off it. When somebody is really trying to articulate something, genuinely struggling to articulate something, as if they will know when they’ve done it. And in the process of trying to do that, they say all sorts of other things.
Newspaper columnist David Brooks is, precisely, going to articulate something. He's going to tell us how to be less distracted by email, text messages, and YouTube clips, so that we can focus and get stuff done. He knows all about it because he suffers from this problem himself. Though he earns a fabulous salary from the Times for work that [jump]
can't take him more than five or ten hours a week all told, he has trouble pushing himself through it, and trying to discipline himself in little ways, to do one thing at a time, to keep screen-free for x many hours per day, isn't helping. Therefore he needs to tell us how to fix this.

So maybe, he thinks, we ought to be more like children, who are good at learning things, though I must say in my experience most children are not exceptionally good at learning how to avoid distraction and get their work done. What do I know?

And maybe in order to find out what children are like we should ask a famous British "child psychologist" (actually a psychoanalytically oriented therapist who spent most of his career working with children, though all his patients are now adults, and an extremely distinguished essayist and biographer), Adam Phillips, who Brooks recently "stumbled across" in an appearance as an interview subject in the spring issue of the Paris Review, which means, I suppose, that Dr. Google brought him over there, or something like that.

What seems most likely, in fact, is that he was Googling himself, around the end of March, when he found an admiring response to his idiotic Prodigal Son column of mid-February, at the blog of the nondenominational Christian theology-talk magazine Mockingbird. Sometime not long after March 26, to be precise, because if he found the notice about himself and then clicked "Home" ("Say, I like this website!") that week, he'd have gotten to a post (by Ethan Richardson) on that Paris Review interview (linked above, and very worth reading), headlined
A Cure for Our Self-Knowledge: Why We’ll Always Want Our Milk in the Same Sippy Cup
A psychologist who regards self-knowledge as an illness! Somebody after Brooksy's own armored heart!

Or perhaps not, because Mockingbird is definitely on Andrew Sullivan's reading list, for one, and maybe Brooks just read it in the usual way (my instinctive belief that he never reads anything without an advance knowledge of what he can use it for is probably unfair). It's pretty well certain, however, that he didn't just sit down with the Paris Review, but came to the Phillips interview through the Richardson post one way or the other, because of the Phillips quotes Brooks uses. They take up more than a third of the column, five out of twelve paragraphs, and almost all of it is right there in the Mockingbird post; Brooks must have noted the headline with some excitement, copied the text into his "DON'T KNOW THYSELF" file for future reference, and gotten back to whatever task it was he'd been trying to avoid until yesterday, when he pulled it out looking for inspiration.

And then when he got to the interview it turned out that it wasn't really about the psychology of not knowing thyself at all, but rather a Writers at Work interview about the work of writing (like all the interviews published in the Paris Review for the past 61 years, I believe, which should perhaps have clued Brooks in), with the not-knowing-thyself material buried in the middle of some dense, almost impenetrable discussion, and to add insult to injury, according to the introduction, Phillips never uses email, conducting his personal and professional business by telephone between patient sessions, and writes only on Wednesdays, which hasn't stopped him from writing 19 books, which is a lot more than Brooks has written.

"It's because he doesn't do YouTube," Brooks said to himself grimly, and started typing about that instead:
like everyone else, I’ve nodded along with the prohibition sermons imploring me to limit my information diet. Stop multitasking! Turn off the devices at least once a week!
And then, of course, was faced with the question of how to build a bridge from there to his first Phillips quotation, so hence children, which the Phillips interview also isn't really about, and the traditional mid-column listicle, one item for each quote:
First, Phillips says, in order to pursue their intellectual adventures, children need a secure social base....
Second, before they can throw themselves into their obsessions. Children are propelled by desires so powerful that they can be frightening....*
Third, children are not burdened by excessive self-consciousness: “As young children, we listen to adults talking before we understand what they’re saying...."
But the first quotation isn't about being secure, it's about being psychologically alone without being insecure—about being in the presence of a caregiver who is, crucially, not making demands on you; and the third is not about absence of self-consciousness but the problem of knowing others, as in love, though it's on the way to the topic of knowing oneself and whether it's a worthwhile object of psychoanalysis. In fact I think Phillips is trolling us a little bit on that point, in the sense that the idea of a psychoanalysis that doesn't aim at the patient's self-knowledge seems so brutally avant-garde, like music that isn't meant to be beautiful. Translated into soberer language, he means something different: that the self-knowledge to be aimed at isn't the stereotyping knowledge of "what kind of person I am" but something much more evanescent and interesting:
...there are different ways of feeling better. And I don’t think the project is to make people feel better. Nor is it to make people feel worse. It’s not to make them feel anything. It’s simply to allow them to see what it is they do feel. And then what redescription might change.
Brooks, though, will never know what he feels, and he's gone well beyond redescription projects; having quietly and probably unconsciously turned children's "appetites" into his own "obsessions" and himself into the child, he's launched himself right over the cliff already, and there's no turning back:
The lesson from childhood, then, is that if you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say “no” to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say “yes” to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.... The only way to stay fully alive is to dive down to your obsessions six fathoms deep. Down there it’s possible to make progress toward fulfilling your terrifying longing, which is the experience that produces the joy.
What? What? So you see what's happened here; trying to fit his vague idea around these alien prefabricated quotations, and being so unable as a writer to monitor himself**, is like the prose equivalent of free association work, or Surrealist automatic writing, and he ends up saying something really important. Important, I mean, for his therapist, if he has one, and if he doesn't he'd better do something about it. The way to get away from Angry Birds and finish writing that column is to not finish writing the column! Go to Tahiti and paint, or undergo gender reassignment, or join the Trappists! Have a drink!
Louise Brooks in Diary of a Lost Girl (1929).
*The Times has restyled that to "obsessions, children" to eliminate the sentence fragment, but no editorial intervention can craft any meaning out of the stricture that you'd better have some obsessions before throwing yourself into them, unless it's like Rule 1 of Dive Club: Make sure there's water in the pool.

In order to write a compelling essay, you have to be able to change tone. I think you also have to be reflexively self-revising.

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