14th March 1997 at 00:00
Why Do Women Write More Letters Than They Post? (Faber, Pounds 6.99). Why do psychoanalysts write works of popularisation? For the money? Because they want to be loved? So many questions, so few answers. But then it's one of the peculiarities of the human psyche that as soon as you start asking questions about it, the chances are that all you'll get back are more questions. Which is the theme both of Darian Leader's book about females' epistolary habits and of Terrors and Experts (Faber, Pounds 6.99),the new volume by the market-leader in the genre, Adam Philips.

Adam Philips draws a distinction between "the Enlightenment Freud" (the one who assured himself that psychoanalysis is a science) and "the post-Freudian Freud" (the one who glimpsed that words - the raw material of psychoanalysis - carry a surplus of meaning, that questions generate questions). The Enlightenment Freud offers progress and psychic wholeness. The other Freud suggests that the whole thing may be a hall of mirrors.

That is a very modern thought, and a scary one - unless, as Philips points out, we can learn to laugh: "Tragedy is when we are ruined by our insufficiency, comedy is when we can relish it."

Darien Leader's book on the differences between men and women is pitched somewhere between Jacques Lacan and Irma Kurtz (if he hasn't already got a column in Cosmopolitan, I'm sure he soon will) and although there are some good laughs along the way (about how one is psychically castrated by the ticket gates on the London Underground; about how women store their love letters with their clothes, while men file them with other correspondence) they tend to be incidental to the main argument. If, that is, there is a main argument. I'm still a bit baffled as to the reason for the unsent letters. But then I'm a man, and maybe that's the point.

Terrors and Experts is more heavyweight, being both a defence of therapy as process (there's a moving account of sessions with a little boy suffering from eczema) and a critique of its institutionalisation in the form of the analyst's "authority". Philips is like a believer who has lost confidence in organised religion. They are often the best kind, and he is also a superb writer.

I once tried teaching Freud to a WEA evening class. When I'd finished recounting one of the case histories, one of my pupils, a matter-of-fact lady in her fifties, said that these Viennese neurotics would have been better off "going for a nice long walk in the country" than being picked apart on a couch. There are no psychoanalysts among the Achuar people, the subject of Philippe Descola's anthropological masterpiece The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle (Flamingo, Pounds 8.99), though their shamans will drive out your evil spirits, which is probably the same thing.

The isolation of the Achuar beggars belief, and Descola's great achievement (the product of three years living among them, combined with enormous literary talent) is to bring home with a wonderful attention to detail just how extraordinary their lives are - and at the same time, of course, just how ordinary. This is as thrilling a read as any novel, but also raises profound questions about almost everything we take for granted.

If The Spears of Twilight is reportage on an epic, Tolstoyan scale, Fergal Keane's Letters to Daniel: Despatches from the Heart (Penguin, Pounds 6. 99) is a series of miniature snapshots. Most of the pieces - such as the title one, a justly celebrated meditation on the violence Keane has witnessed from South Africa to Rwanda - were written for BBC Radio's From Our Own Correspondent. Though there's no doubting Keane's humanity as a reporter, the straight transfer to the printed page leaves an impression of terseness. Radio really is an art in itself.

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