Endless Renewal: On Adam Phillips’s “On Giving Up”

By Sarah MoorhouseMarch 26, 2024

Endless Renewal: On Adam Phillips’s “On Giving Up”

On Giving Up by Adam Phillips

DRY JANUARY! LENT! Throwing away things that do not spark joy—somewhere along the way, asceticism or abstention became equated with that glittering, elusive thing, self-improvement. You’d be forgiven for assuming, therefore, that a book called On Giving Up—first published in the United Kingdom in January, the month of resolutions—would fall neatly into the category of self-help books instructing you on how exactly to become a better person. Yet from the first page of this new essay collection by the renowned British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, it’s evident that something less straightforward is afoot. For Phillips, “giving up” means far more than relinquishing what he calls the “anaesthetic pleasures of everyday life”: “alcohol,” for instance, “or chocolate.” The term also denotes more than its absolute manifestation, suicide. Phillips is interested in forms of giving up that are neither trivial nor total and uses these nine essays to reorientate the concept as “a useful clue to our moral and emotional complexity.”

In addition to practicing psychoanalysis, Adam Phillips has taught English literature at the universities of Oxford and York. This combination equips him to address giving up as an essential mechanism in both human development and great literature, and Phillips focusses on literary characters rather than real people in several of his essays, treating us along the way to fresh readings of speeches such as Hamlet’s “this too too sullied flesh.” Tragic heroes, Phillips claims at his book’s outset, are figures “either unable or unwilling to give up”; Lear, Othello, and Macbeth “can’t be deflected […] from their stated aims.” (What Phillips doesn’t spell out is that the Prince of Denmark’s real torment stems from his incapacity either to give up or to take decisive action; for that nuance, see the original Shakespeare, in which the twilight of inaction appears patently worse than an abandonment of purpose altogether.)

It’s not only dramatis personae who face these conundrums. Whether to persevere or to “yield”—to employ one of Samuel Johnson’s definitions of “giving up,” set out by Phillips in his opening essay—is a question humans face at every turn. “Giving up” represents an especially interesting phenomenon for psychoanalysts like Phillips because, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, most people aren’t very good at either making decisions or standing by them. According to the book, two things get in the way: memory and imagination. Phillips explains that “we give, up or give something up, when we believe we can no longer go on as we are.” Yet truly moving on is difficult, because while one might give up on a specific ambition—like a banker who once wanted to become an astronaut—the memory of having had that ambition, of having once envisioned that alternative reality, typically remains.

We may gain characteristics or skills; even so, we don’t fully relinquish previous states of being. To illustrate this, Phillips turns to Franz Kafka’s reflections on swimming. “I can swim like the others,” Kafka wrote, “only I have a better memory than the others, I have not forgotten my former not-being-able-to-swim. But because I have not forgotten it, the being-able-to-swim does me no good, and I still cannot swim.” Somewhere inside, Phillips tells us, we forever remain “people who can’t swim.” Giving up—in Kafka’s case, the “giving up” of “not-being-able-to-swim”—is the mechanism for moving on from our childhood selves. Failing to adequately perform the act of giving up is what connects us to those former, younger selves; according to one cliché from the Romantic period that Phillips finds persuasive, “we are always also really the children we once were.”

Phillips’s model of memory evokes the 19th-century British writer Thomas De Quincey. De Quincey, who famously chronicled his torturous experience of addiction in Confessions of an English Opium Eater in 1821, was fascinated by memory. His later essay Suspiria de Profundis (1845) supplies a remarkable analogy for memory: a palimpsest. Common writing tools before the advent of the printing press, these scrolls or wax tablets were superficially erased before their reuse. Consequently, layer upon layer of half-removed inscriptions built up beneath the surface. De Quincey writes:

What else than a natural and mighty palimpsest is the human brain? Such a palimpsest is my brain; such a palimpsest, O reader! is yours. Everlasting layers of ideas, images, feelings, have fallen upon your brain softly as light. Each succession has seemed to bury all that went before. And yet in reality not one has been extinguished.

Extinguishing ideas that aren’t immediately useful—the sense impressions, desires, and emotions that crowd in upon us every day—is a hasty process. Quickly, constantly, we make room for new thoughts by rubbing away at memory’s palimpsest-like surface, but the indentations left behind don’t really go away. And this, the accumulation of things that we haven’t properly given up, forms the pool of unconscious influences that make us who we are.


For Phillips as for De Quincey, our unconscious mind is thereby composed largely of residue. The notion draws Phillips to the work of Sigmund Freud, whose theories each of the book’s nine essays engages with in turn. Taken altogether, the collection offers a comprehensive investigation of Freudian psychoanalysis and the development of the “unconscious.” According to Freud, we suppress ideas and desires that are unpalatable to our civilized selves (say, our Oedipus complexes), in what Phillips would characterize as an imperfect act of giving up. Only partially surrendered, this material remains imprinted on our minds, undermining any claims our identities might have to coherence. For Freud, therefore, we are, in Phillips’s summary, “by definition at odds with [ourselves] and others, ununifiable and fundamentally incoherent—in unrelenting internal conflict between rivalrous and contending parts of the self.”

By examining familiar areas of psychoanalysis through his lens of “giving up,” Phillips reveals how Freud’s theories—often dismissed as outmoded by modern psychologists—can still help us understand our 21st-century lives. In a striking essay titled “The Pleasures of Censorship,” Phillips sets out a key tenet of psychoanalysis: that we each manage the aforementioned “unrelenting internal conflict” by way of self-censorship. The word “censor,” he tells us, derives from the name of the magistrates who kept accounts of the property of Roman citizens, collecting taxes and, crucially, asserting moral control over the populace in the process. Phillips argues that we each host an internal censor who acts as both protector and prosecutor; we are “obedient, unconsciously, to internal authorities” that, in ordinary conversation, we refer to as “our preferences, our prejudices, our beliefs and convictions.” The foundations for this are laid in childhood, as we absorb our parents’ exhortations to, say, refrain from pulling our siblings’ hair or making a mess of the kitchen floor. We receive other belief systems and political ideologies as we grow up, equipping our inner censors to deliver their own judgments in turn.

Notably, Phillips holds back from considering specific occasions on which self-censorship might go too far. Yet one can hardly help wondering what happens when inner censors grow overzealous. (Might virtue signaling represent a prime example?) The book explains how censorship revolves around a “category of the unacceptable,” meaning that “what we can let ourselves know about ourselves is always under surveillance, and tends to be […] heavily policed.” Put another way, overdeveloped muscles of self-censorship can stop us from seeing ourselves and others clearly.

Even so, Phillips insists that our censors are indispensable. By instigating what Phillips terms (somewhat sinisterly) an “internal regime” that enables the individual to survive within an “external regime,” one’s censor “almost literally makes the individual’s life liveable.” As Phillips points out, Freud himself was an “uneasily assimilated Jew in an anti-Semitic culture”—in many ways, self-censorship represented his “most useful weapon” and “shield.”

Beyond their moral function, censors teach us how to be “normal,” whatever that might mean in a given situation. Broadly, Phillips characterizes normality as the giving of things up to assimilate into society (an idea which sounds effectively akin to conformity). He makes no comment on how this process plays out in contemporary contexts—a shame, since this would have allowed him to demonstrate the continued relevance of Freud’s thinking. In the resurgence of authoritarianism around the world, Freud’s particular concept of censorship (and his own experience of it), finds an urgent modern equivalent; Freud, Phillips tells us, devised his concept of the censor in troubled response to the censorship he observed in Russian media. Yet Phillips neglects to draw any immediate parallels between this historical censorship and Russia’s reporting of its war in Ukraine today, instead falling back on literary characters—in this essay, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus—to provide safer source material. At times, this notable removal from contemporary politics reads as refreshing; at others, the book might have benefited from a bolder stance.


By the book’s final pages, Phillips has rendered the term “giving up” spacious and flexible, having woven together psychology and literature to reveal suggestive points of contact. Even so, it’s a lot of material to fit under one terminological umbrella, and it can be challenging to grasp how exactly Phillips wields the term in discrete essays—much less to make those individual definitions cohere. This is partly a problem of form, since each installment is structured as a standalone piece of prose. As the essayist takes on topics from censorship to loss, his links between various kinds of “giving up” are thereby implicit, rather than spelled out in a single, cumulative argument. There are moments when Phillips seems to take cover in the sheer capaciousness of the definitions that he has created, resulting in statements—“giving up is a way of giving,” for example—that, however elegant, prove difficult to parse.

Phillips’s model is most compelling when grounded in the mechanics of literary characterization. To illustrate how giving up can mean relinquishing control (rather than exerting it, as in instances of self-censorship), Phillips turns to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a character famously unable to sleep. In sleep, Phillips claims, we release ideas and desires we might otherwise suppress through self-censorship—in sleep, the censor loosens his grip and our unconscious reigns. Yet, another tragic hero who is “unable to give up,” Macbeth “doth murder sleep”; wracked by guilt following Duncan’s murder, he can no longer partake in that restorative form of abandonment described by Shakespeare as “the death of each day’s life.” Giving up by way of sleep renders us vulnerable to thoughts we might otherwise try to avoid, and, gripped by an anxious insomnia, Macbeth adamantly forgoes any such release.

In this way, Phillips makes an ambitious case: that giving up is as important to our psychological well-being as hope and love are. We give up through self-censorship to participate effectively in society, yet the imperfection of the act makes us who we are. Using Shakespeare’s tragic heroes (along with others, such as Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s 1947 novel Doctor Faustus) to explore the limbo that results from an inability to give up, Phillips reclaims the term from, at one end, its connotations of utter abandonment, and at the other, its association with the self-satisfied Dry January brigade.

What does this all mean for the reader? In what is arguably the most suggestive essay in the book, Phillips asks us what we might need to “give up in order to feel alive.” After all, he posits, our “habitual tactics and techniques for deadening oneself, the anaesthesias of everyday life that can seem to make it liveable,” can stop us from really living. For Phillips, giving up is therefore ultimately a process of renewal. And, in a funny way, our fondness for making New Year’s resolutions betrays our instinctive recognition that “habit is a great deadener” (the line is Samuel Beckett’s). Still, all too often, our resolutions simply replace one anesthesia with another.

Phillips suggests an alternative, which he underscores through reference to the Russian formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky. To resist habit’s deadening impact, Shklovsky tells us, we can turn to art, to literature: he writes that “[t]he technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”

In other words, literature helps us give up mundanity. It allows us to sit with the shapeless morass of time by framing it on the page. The best form of giving up, it seems, may just be to take up a book.

LARB Contributor

Sarah Moorhouse grew up in London and holds BA and master’s degrees in English literature from the University of Oxford. Based between Oxford and London, she works as an editorial assistant for Sage Publishing and an entry writer for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Lit Hub, The Bookseller, the Oxford Review of Books, and Necessary Fiction, among other publications.


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