‘We would rather be ruined than changed,’ W H Auden sombrely wrote. Although I suspect Adam Phillips might agree with this in the sense Auden intended it, the title of his latest intellectually bracing book appears to suggest otherwise.
The ability to change is at the core of the theory of evolution. It is not, as is often suggested, the fittest species that survives, but the one most responsive to change. It is also the premise of psychoanalysis, Phillips’s own profession, though as every analyst will tell you, the change that people who come for analysis claim to be seeking generally turns out to be the last thing they want, the fervour with which change is sought precisely reflecting the degree to which it is feared. If change happens in the process of psychoanalysis, it happens by stealth: in the gradual relaxation of defences, in the widening of consciousness, through dreams and free association and the incremental admittance of light that reveals hidden stumbling blocks and long-concealed hurts.
In fact, Phillips is not really concerned with this kind of change (at least not in this book). His real interest here is conversion, which is a special kind of change, though not of the sort that he would wish for those who come to him for analysis (if there