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Good Enough

Psychoanalysis learns to love letting go

There’s a game my girlfriend and I sometimes play. Well, really, it’s more of an argument: “Fuck, Marry, Kill” with the past, present, and future. My answer, which I take to be a good, solid American answer, is fuck the present, marry the future, and kill the past. My reasoning is that you should always want to fuck the present, to live in the moment (as the advertisers say), screw every hole of the now. Likewise, marrying the future is admirable, like monogamy, and prudent, like monogamy; it’s a wish, and a promise, for stability and grace. You have to believe in the future, be loyal to what comes next, to what and who you are always becoming. And that leaves only the past to kill. Which, so what? It’s the past. It’s already passed.

My girlfriend—who is also an American, but an American writer and lover of fiction—has a different answer. She says you should fuck the future, marry the past, and kill the present. I definitely see the appeal of fucking the future; it’s where the action is, the excitement, the unknown. The future is a stranger, and we all want to fuck strangers. And for her, the past is too precious and monumental to kill. Memory is a repository, a treasured burden worth bearing; it’s what you can’t seem to get rid of, even if sometimes you want to. So, you marry it. But here’s where the trouble starts: I can’t allow her to kill the present. When we get going on this topic, she says, “Well, what’s the present? Isn’t it always slipping away? Isn’t it gone the moment you try to do something in it?” And I say, “No! The present is this,” slicing my hand through the air, as if to catch it. “Isn’t this precious?”

In his 1996 book Monogamy, a collection of aphoristic provocations on the subject of coupledom, the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, “A couple is a conspiracy in search of a crime. Sex is often the closest they can get.” It’s a great line in a book full of them. But I don’t think he’s right. A couple is a conspiracy, yes, but we know exactly what the crime is, and it’s not sex: the crime is monogamy itself, our selfishness and greed, that we guiltlessly guard and hoard for ourselves the greatest thing we’ve ever found. Happy couples always feel a little bad for everyone else (even, especially, other couples), and that makes them feel good. Which is sick! We relish it: their privation, our plenty. What’s more criminal than that?

So, if monogamy is a sort of licensed miserliness, what does it mean to marry the future? Or to marry the past? What is it that each of us is hoarding for ourselves, in our respective marriages, and what are we disavowing in our preferred victims? What is it, in other words, that we’re unwilling to give up, and what will we sacrifice to keep it?

Giving Up the Ghost

Phillips’s new book, On Giving Up, out in the United States in March from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, probes these questions in its title essay. His contention is that giving up has gotten a bad rap. Or at least, that our societal injunctions against giving up—against surrender, resignation, calling it quits—have made us insufficiently curious about its allure. Why, if it’s self-evidently a bad thing, must we be so vigilant about discouraging it?

“From a certain point there is no more turning back,” Kafka wrote in one of his Zürau aphorisms, compiled shortly after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917. “That is the point that must be reached.” To which Phillips replies:

The point from which there is no more turning back suggests, of course, that there has already been a certain amount of turning back, or a certain amount of wanting to turn back. As though a desire to turn back is what we always have to contend with—as a temptation, or simply as a choice. As though we are also driven by a desire for uncompleted actions, by the pleasures of indecision and uncertainty and deferral, by the desire to give up.

To explain this curious longing, Phillips invokes one of Freud’s most controversial ideas: the death drive. Between the wars, and in the aftermath of his own daughter’s death by Spanish Flu, Freud hypothesized an instinctual drive: an inherent, even biological, impulse to die in one’s “own fashion.” In so doing, Freud established, in an act of anti-Darwinian blasphemy, a primal conflict in every organism (and society) between the life instinct, Eros, the drive toward pleasure, unity, mastery, and self-preservation; and the death instinct, Thanatos, the drive toward destruction, disunity, death, and the numbing of passion.

Happy couples always feel a little bad for everyone else (even, especially, other couples), and that makes them feel good. Which is sick!

Phillips, in his impish way, wants us to rethink the death drive as a “giving-up instinct,” a move which simultaneously raises and lowers the stakes of giving up. “One of the reasons giving up has such a bad press—we never say ‘she is really good at giving up’ or ‘giving up is good for you’—is that the giving up that occurs regularly in everyday life is felt to be an ominous foreshadowing of, or reminder of, the ultimate giving up that is suicide,” he writes. It’s as if there is a slippery slope from a child quitting her piano lessons, or giving away her favorite toy, to dying by her own hand. “As though wanting to give up is the worst sign, and the wish to give up is something we should be extremely wary of in ourselves. As though it is like a virus, or a contagion.”

This way of thinking is severe but not inexplicable. When a loved one is depressed, or worse, they may cease to take pleasure in their passions; we watch with dread as they forego the enlivening activities of life. Likewise, it’s not surprising that a society dependent upon our productive labor would cultivate powerful injunctions against idleness, sloth, and capitulation. (Thus our pervasive social fear of “dropouts” and “freeloaders.”) But giving up, Phillips insists, is not always and only an incremental step toward self-annihilation. Nor is refusing to give up always admirable or life-affirming. Tragic heroes, like Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, he points out, are “our catastrophic examples of the inability to give up.” They suffer precisely for their refusal to change their minds or change course; they are monomaniacs. “I want to suggest that we are, or may be, unduly terrorized,” writes Phillips, “and intimidated by the wish to give up, and that the daunting association of giving up with suicide has stopped us being able to think about the milder, more instructive, more promising givings up.”

Giving up, like being helped, reminds us of our dependence, which, for Phillips, is both our permanent condition and one of things we’d rather forget. When we can only conceive of giving up as failure, as a little death-in-life, we are being tyrannized by our ego ideals: our notions of ourselves, what we take ourselves to be, to need and not need, to be capable and incapable of. The alternative to being oppressed by our ego-ideals, says Phillips, is to be inspired by them—to claim for ourselves a bit more leeway, a bit more ignorance about who we are, or could be. This is exactly the sort of non-knowledge that our deathly conception of giving up does not permit us to entertain. What if giving up was just another maneuver, a mode of sociality, in our “repertoire”? He wants us to see that letting go can be the precondition for starting anew.

Stuck in the Middle with You

Phillips, who reportedly sees analytic patients four days a week, in a room several feet from where he writes one day a week (Wednesdays), has published twenty-seven books. They are uniformly short, allusive, and elusive, preoccupied with contradiction and wordplay. His work reflects a concerted (I might even say crusading) impulse to trouble the norms, rules, models, and expectations that make us feel stuck, unable to think, or unable to want. Psychoanalysis, Phillips has written, “is a conversation that enables people to understand what stops them having the kinds of conversation they want.” This sort of provoking, ludic oversimplification, which simultaneously domesticates, satirizes, and widens the field of Freudian inquiry, is precisely Phillipsian.

Giving up, Phillips insists, is not always and only an incremental step toward self-annihilation. Nor is refusing to give up always admirable or life-affirming.

Psychoanalysis, Phillips insists, should not be about coming to conclusions but coming to beginnings. Sándor Ferenczi, a close collaborator of Freud, suggested that “the patient is not cured by free-association, he is cured when he can free-associate.” Which is another way of saying the analysis is only over when it can begin. One of Freud’s last and most daunting papers was titled “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” and Phillips sides determinedly with interminability—not just endlessness but provisionality, curiosity, promiscuity, improvisation, and play. (Also: circuitousness. “Digression,” he says in his book Side Effects, “is secular revelation.”) This sensibility, evident in his writing, reflects the clinical preoccupations of his major influences: analysts of the British Middle Group, in particular, D.W. Winnicott, Charles Rycroft, Marion Milner, and Masud Khan.

Sometimes called the Independent Group, these theorists situated themselves between two often bitterly rivalrous camps in British psychoanalysis: one led by Melanie Klein, the other by Anna Freud, who felt a responsibility to defend her father’s classical theory from revision by the Kleinians. Among other disagreements, Klein believed children as young as three were analyzable; instead of interpreting their dreams, free associations, and slips of the tongue, the analyst interpreted the unconscious material manifesting in the child’s play. By contrast, Anna Freud thought young children’s egos were too underdeveloped to appreciate or handle interpretations of instinctual conflict, even through the medium of play. The Middle Group managed to mobilize Klein’s novel insights about child analysis—and about the importance of pre-oedipal infancy—without embracing Klein’s more radical, and esoteric, revision of Freud’s theory of mind. Their work, Phillips has written, “is characterized by an interest in observation and empathy, a suspicion of abstraction and dogmatism, and a belief in people’s ability to make themselves known and be understood.”

Winnicott, about whom Phillips wrote his first book, looms especially large. Indeed, Winnicott is part of his lineage in the field: Winnicott—who was first analyzed by James Strachey, Freud’s prolific English translator—analyzed Khan, who analyzed Phillips in turn. Phillips credits reading Winnicott’s book Playing and Reality with inspiring him to become a child psychoanalyst. And it was from Winnicott that he developed the central importance of dependence and relationships. “In Freud’s view man is divided and driven, by the contradictions of his desire, into frustrating involvement with others,” Phillips writes in his first book.

In Winnicott man can only find himself in relation with others, and in the independence gained through acknowledgement of dependence. For Freud, in short, man was the ambivalent animal; for Winnicott he would be the dependent animal . . .

It might be more accurate to say that, for Winnicott (and for Phillips), man is the animal who is ambivalent about his dependence. We need other people, and we resent that about them because it means they can frustrate our desires—and they do. Our dependence, then, is often something we would like to “give up,” or at least disavow, but it is also, definitionally, the condition of not being able to. Worse still: to deny our helplessness is to forego the possibility of being satisfied.

It was Winnicott, a pediatrician, who theorized the “good-enough mother,” an “ordinary devoted” parent who provides a nurturing environment in which the infant can experience, at first, omnipotence—he wants the breast; the breast appears—and then, gradually, its absence: the frustrating revelation of the mother’s otherness, her imperfect attentiveness to every spontaneous need, and her own fragility, her capacity to be hurt (and survive his aggression). The good enough mother, in other words, cushions our first disillusionment, our first great relinquishment: the awful discovery of our dependence, the fact that, as Phillips writes in On Giving Up, “the people we need are not, and cannot be, under our remote control.”

In a healthy person, Winnicott thought, a residual memory of total safety and absolute power, facilitated by what he refers to as the mother’s “holding” environment, never fully dissipates. “Being a distinctly human person with a continually regenerating sense of self . . . requires the preservation of the experience of subjective omnipotence as a deeply private, never fully revealed core of experience,” write Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret J. Black, summarizing Winnicott (and adopting his tic of abusing the word experience). That residue of subjective omnipotence remains, Winnicott writes, “at the center of each person.” We can tolerate being alone with ourselves—enjoy it even—without being painfully aware of our abject isolation, fragility, and need because, on some level, our mother is there too.

Access to that secret, unspeaking, inner reservoir, which Winnicott called the True Self, depends on a dialectic between omnipotence and objectivity; between the self as sovereign, and the self as vulnerable to external forces. The simultaneity of these two states, and our passage from one to the other, is made possible by what Winnicott calls “transitional” objects and phenomena. The child sees, for example, his teddy bear as neither his own subjective invention (as he first sees the breast) nor as “discovered and separate” (as he must, painfully, come to see the breast), but as a special, cushioning extension of himself: halfway between the mother as she is subjectively created by the infant’s wishes and objective reality, in which the mother is her own embodied person. For Winnicott, it is through transitional experience—the investment of external objects with gratifying subjective significance—that we learn to enjoy and be affected by the symbolic itself; that is, by art.

Winnicott blamed an inadequate maternal holding environment for much adult neurosis. Many of his patients, he thought, had experienced a too early revelation of the instability, contingency, and/or conditionality of their caregiver’s care (in other words, not-good-enough mothering), which led them to cultivate compliance—an over-orientation toward the needs of others. Such patients, Winnicott thought, developed False Self disorders, a precociously conciliatory mask which protects the True Self from an environment assumed to be unsafe and too demanding. These patients were thus unable to experience themselves as fully real, alive, or, we might say, as most Freudians wouldn’t, ensouled.

I would not be the first to note that there is something very English about this: replacing ambivalence about sex with reconciliation to dependence as the defining experience of earliest childhood. “It would not be wrong to see in the very ‘middleness’ of the Middle Group something of the English spirit,” writes Ben Parker in n+1. If you squint, this adaptive tendency sounds a bit like English liberalism, reconciling the individual with the collective without impinging on the sovereignty of the self; it was, Parker writes, “quite alien to the displaced Viennese parties” in London (like Klein and Anna Freud).

It is certainly true that the work of Winnicott and his cohort arrived at an opportune moment for a beleaguered English patriarchy. “Just as women were being encouraged to stay at home again after their crucial work during [the First World War], coercive and convincing theories about the importance for children of continuous mothering, of the potential dangers of separation, began to be published which could easily be used to persuade them to stay there,” notes Phillips in Winnicott. Good-enough mothering strikes a superficial note of latitude—good enough is not, after all, perfect or even great—but in actuality, the holding environment makes enormous demands on infant caregivers. How long is too long to answer the infant’s wail? How many tardy occasions is too many? Regardless, she is to blame. “In British psychoanalysis after the war,” Phillips writes, “there was not so much a return to Freud . . . as a return to Mother.” And Mother was on trial.

And yet Winnicott’s theories also made extraordinary and novel demands of the psychoanalyst, whose job it was to provide in the analytic situation that which mother had not. For Winnicott, Phillips writes, psychoanalytic treatment was “first and foremost” about “the provision of a congenial milieu,” one in which the patient, assailed by falseness, rigidity, and an inability to spontaneously enjoy life, can feel held and secure enough to surprise herself, to play. In other words, the analyst creates an environment in which the patient can risk relinquishing the protective mantle and load-bearing scaffolding she has built up around her True Self. If successful, such a giving up—which is also a giving in and a letting go—may allow the patient to experience what the Hungarian-British analyst Michael Balint called, with undisguised grandiosity, “a new beginning.”

Cruel to Be Kind

This all sounds rather lovely, magical even, to use a word that Winnicott was not at all ashamed of. And in many respects, it is. It strikes me as utopian, but entirely correct, that we would all be better off if we could learn to wearily appreciate, rather than violently disavow, our helplessness, and thereby relearn to play, to surprise ourselves, and to relish what we cannot know about ourselves and the people we love. If that’s all there is to it, why not give up? If this is psychoanalysis, who wouldn’t be willing to convert to it?

But as I undertook this assignment, I found myself hungry for some kind of gristle in the filet. I was unnerved by Phillips’s composure, by his kind-but-frisky equanimity, as if it had to conceal perversion. I was determined, like a monomaniacal PI—or, perhaps, just like a journalist, that lowly and envious creature—to catch him out. Where, I asked myself, was the sadism? Speaking to a friend about this ignoble impulse, she said, perhaps a little exasperated with me, “You just want it rougher.” And that’s true. Psychoanalysis is for me a way of thinking about impossible problems, not merely a way of coming unstuck or feeling better. For all his tolerance of unreason, Phillips himself always seems eminently reasonable, almost absurdly well-adjusted, an avatar of the kind of person his patients and readers should aspire to be. In other words, he seems sane. One wouldn’t want a therapist to betray too much vanity, self-destructiveness, or delusion, but in a writer, over-sanity can be hard to take.

But every so often in Phillips’s prose, I sense something purring just beyond view, something potentially large and unfriendly. I wonder, for example, if Phillips hasn’t understated the stakes of giving up—not necessarily unto death, but at least unto danger. Winnicott’s clinical techniques demand a superhuman (that is to say, “motherly”) alertness to the patient’s spontaneously arising needs and an equally profound resilience: a willingness to make oneself available to be used by the patient—as the infant uses the breast, sometimes violently—and survive the attack.

Giving up one’s False Self is a perilous proposition.

Winnicott, known for his Zen-like calm, ease, and humility, was temperamentally suited to this work. So, it seems, is Phillips. “My project,” Phillips has said, “is to work out what it would be to be kind to the patient from the patient’s point of view.” A lovely sentiment. But if other analytic traditions could be accused of being cruel to be kind (think of the austere, taciturn analyst whose withholding distance enables the patient to transfer and work out her primordial resentments), then the Winnicottian approach could, in the wrong analyst’s hands, use kindness to be cruel. It is wonderful to feel held, safe, and warm, but it can be abjectly terrifying—worse than numbness or falsity—if, having snuggled into a motherly embrace, one is pinched, dropped, or worse.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the life and work of Phillips’s training analyst, Masud Khan. Khan was one of Winnicott’s most prized disciples and colleagues, a Pakistani-British prodigy who made his own extraordinary contributions to analytic thinking. By the end of his life, however, he was an alcoholic and at least somewhat mad, expelled from the British Psycho-Analytical Society for engaging in a pattern of inappropriate (not only sexual) conduct with his patients, and for harboring—as revealed in his own final book, The Long Wait—a deep-seated and paranoid antisemitism. Thanks to a devastating account by one of Khan’s patients, the economist Wynne Godley, we also have reason to believe that Winnicott was aware of his heir’s erratic and sadistic behavior several decades before it came to light.

I don’t feel qualified to sort out all the rich implications of Khan’s trajectory for the history of British psychoanalysis—or for that of British Empire. But Phillips hinted at some of them in an essay dedicated to his mentor’s memory in 1991, when Khan’s reputation was imperiled but not ruined: “In its twilight, the British Empire produced a theory of good-enough mothering as the antithesis, the guilty critique, of what was always a bad-enough imperialism. Throughout Khan’s work there is a continual and passionate critique of the overinterpretative analyst as maternal saboteur, as the one who appropriates or colonizes the patient, demanding ‘exclusive possession.’”

It is startling, then, to observe in Godley’s harrowing essay that Khan appears to have wanted to sabotage, possess, and even colonize his patient. (“And to think you people ruled the world!” Khan railed at Godley, whose grandfather had, in fact, helmed the colonial India Office for thirty-five years.) It requires no great feat of analytic daring to detect Khan’s countertransferences here, nor the reckless vengeance they seemed to authorize; it’s only a shame he seemed not to care about their harmful effect on his deeply broken, needful, and defeated patient. Instead of cultivating a holding environment in which Godley could come to terms with his own over-adaptation to the needs of his mother, Khan created a deeply regressive and unmooring situation in which Godley was forced to perform the same precocious role reversal as in his childhood: Godley felt it was his duty to save, protect, amuse, and tolerate Khan. Another mother to mother.

Giving up one’s False Self is a perilous proposition. In cases like Godley’s, it entails a “regression to dependence” in the analytic situation, a reacquainting of the patient with his infantile need and fragility, during which absolute and reliable holding by the analyst becomes indispensable. As Winnicott once wrote, “Every stage which could be called an advance brings the patient into closer contact with pain.” In a sense, the analyst is reteaching the patient how to suffer, a lesson not every person is prepared to endure, nor every analyst equipped to administer.

“Winnicott listened with the whole of his body,” Khan wrote reverently of his mentor, “and had keen unintrusive eyes that gazed at one with a mixture of unbelief and utter acceptance. A childlike spontaneity imbued his movements. Yet he could be so still, so very inheld and still.” A beautiful description of near-perfect analytic bearing. But in less charitable moods, of which he had many, Khan also wrote of being “traumatised” by Winnicott’s “Christian masochistic humility.” Winnicott placated Khan; he was, Khan wrote, “my most generous yet abominable exploiting accomplice.” In other words, Khan felt smothered by Winnicott’s weakness. Even the analyst who refrains from interpretation can dominate and sabotage (as well as any colonizer). Winnicott was good at allowing himself to be used by his patient, to be hated and destroyed while surviving. He was not good at hating his patient in turn, which Khan believed to be necessary—in doses. “Often it is the analyst who has to dose aggression in his behaviour before the patient can arrive at the capacity to process his own,” he wrote. It was Khan’s folly that he didn’t always get the dosage right, especially as his own health deteriorated.

Phillips tends to speak admiringly, if slightly apologetically, about his mentor when asked. “I loved him, and he was wonderful to me and for me,” he told an interviewer in 2019. “I don’t mean that I think all the stuff written about him isn’t true, because I suspect that some of it is true, but the man that I knew was extremely warm, extremely humorous, an amazingly good listener.” This is not altogether surprising; Khan’s biographer, Linda Hopkins, found that many of his patients remembered him and his interventions with intense gratitude. The Phillips interview becomes more revealing, however, when he is asked about Khan’s fondness for Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin, whose Christian piety and guilelessness is mistaken for idiocy. (Really, it was more than fondness: there were times during Khan’s psychosis when he couldn’t distinguish between himself and the fictional Myshkin.) Khan, Phillips explains, was attracted, in Myshkin, to “something akin to a holy fool. Something about the idea of a kind of wisdom that comes from a certain kind of naivety, but a demonic naivety—naivety not exclusively as a gentle thing, but as a canny, cunning thing as well.”

A canny, non-gentle naivety; a cunning coyness that manages to provoke, irk, and intimate a sort of delicious danger: that is what I had missed in Phillips’s work—distracted, as I was, by his obnoxious equipoise. When you’re looking for it, Khan’s voice is everywhere in Phillips, speaking out through the gaps and from around the corners of his writing. At the height of his powers, he manages to combine Winnicott’s endearing warmth and earnestness with Khan’s wicked goading and nerve, keeping each in balance: whispering like an analytic angel in one ear and a devil in the other.

Holding Out

Khan, who was slowly killed by his addictions—to alcohol, and, like Freud, to tobacco—had his own revelatory thoughts about giving up. “The hardest thing to learn is that one has to give up by and from choice, in order for other new experiences and relationships to have scope and growth,” he wrote to his friend Victor Smirnoff. “The character of change is defined more by what one decides to give up, than what one chooses to add afresh.”

Khan’s concept of “lying fallow,” elaborated in a 1977 paper, strikes me as just the sort of promising rehearsal for giving up that Phillips is keen to redeem. For Khan, “lying fallow” is a restorative withdrawal from life, an enlivening little death, which Khan recommended to patients in need of re-accessing “that larval inner experience which distinguishes true psychic creativity from obsessional productiveness.” Today, we might see Khan’s “lying fallow” as a fruitful redescription of what is commonly termed, and unduly pathologized, as burnout: terrorized by the demands of frenzied productivity, we retreat from life into languid seclusion, in the hopes of rediscovering our inner reserves of spontaneity and self-directed play.

This fallow mood, Khan says, is an “inherently private and personal” experience, but, paradoxically, that which keeps it from becoming “morbid, introspective or sullenly doleful” is the presence of another. Lying fallow “needs an ambience of companionship in order to be held and sustained. Someone—a friend, a wife, a neighbor—sitting around unobtrusively, guarantees that the psychic process does not get out of hand.” Lying fallow is a form of giving up, but also, crucially, a giving ourselves over to, a flight from manic obligation into peaceable interdependence. It’s not quite that misery loves company but that solitude requires it.

This notion of being “alone, together” is today the provenance of TikTok relationship coaching. But thought of in Winnicott’s and Khan’s terms—as a solitude made possible by unobtrusive holding—it has real beauty. (I think of the lyrics from the Smog song “Held”: “I am moving away . . . / From within the reach of me / And all the while being held.”) It changes the character of giving up, and perhaps of burnout too. What we fear about giving up, for ourselves and others, is a further separation: an escape from entanglements into our own loathsome brooding, a step toward nonexistence. But what if we don’t have to give up alone? The thought is consoling, if not entirely. The terrible and wonderful thing about coupledom, as Gillian Rose has observed, is that there is no democracy in it: we are at each other’s mercy. Analysis is the place you go to fantasize about fucking, marrying, and killing; in the couple, you might actually do it.

“We need to remember,” Phillips concludes, “that giving up is a way of giving. And to wonder exactly what has been given up, to whom, and for what.” What might be important is knowing, or at least hoping, that the gift of giving up will arrive at its destination. As Winnicott said, “It is joy to be hidden, but disaster not to be found.”