January 2012

Lisa Levy


Going Sane, Going Soft: The Evolution of Adam Phillips

Recent evidence suggests that Adam Phillips is worried about us. In the past few years the essayist and psychoanalyst has published books called things like Going Sane: Maps of Happiness, (2005), On Kindness (2009), and On Balance (2010). Judging just from these titles--as opposed to earlier books, like The Beast in the Nursery (1998) or Darwin's Worms (2001) or Terrors and Experts (2007) -- one could speculate that Phillips was getting soft, maybe even veering into the tepid waters of self-help. This is a sure way to lose your regular post writing for the London Review of Books, and put your other gig editing a new edition of Freud in jeopardy (nobody would trust a touchy-feely Freudian). Maybe we should be worried about him.  

Actually, Phillips has lost none of his rigor in turning to these upbeat topics. He has always been a master of paradoxes, an intrepid explorer of opposites, and even if he is more interested in the bright side these days he has not lost his knack for negatives. To wit, one of the most compelling pieces in all three books is a snippet of analysis of Cinderella in an essay called “Mothers and Fairy Tales” in On Balance. In “The Least of Her Problems: Cinderella and Her Men,” Phillips suggests the proper reading of Cinderella is as a story in which “the real problem is not between men and women, but between women.” Cinderella and her prince get along fine; it is other women who get in Cinderella's way. In psychological terms, which is how Phillips reads, Cinderella is a “story about how women -- or parts of themselves -- can be the enemies of their own desire; a story about how women, out of fear of other women's envy, want to frustrate themselves.” This is not sunny stuff. What Phillips means is that if a woman essentially plays all of the female roles in Cinderella -- the wicked stepmother, the evil stepsisters, the fairy godmother, as well as Cinderella herself -- she is responsible for thwarting her own initial desires as well as for the eventual outcome in which those desires are met. She takes herself out of the romantic running, dreams up a way to get back in the race, and then makes her own happy ending through the Freudian mechanism of finding, or inventing, a better mother.

Key to the story is that the fairy godmother does not make Cinderella beautiful; she reveals how beautiful Cinderella already is. Her magic is the revelation and clarification of the envy of the women around her who keep Cinderella from seeking pleasure. “If we read the story as an internal drama -- in which everyone in Cinderella's story is a part of herself -- it is as though what Cinderella does, all that endless housework, is an attempt to keep at bay those female parts of herself that hate her pleasure and her pleasure-seeking because it excites envy.” And these books on balance, kindness, sanity, through the magic of Phillips's clarifications, are in themselves like the Cinderella story. They have tensions under the surface which Phillips teases out which might not immediately seem evident. Their opposites, excess, cruelty, madness, need to be defined and worked through in order to reveal the beauty inherent in these concepts. Phillips's recent books are, so to speak, Cinderella stories in line with this specific reading of the fairy tale: fantasies in which some kind of perfect world is possible if only the parts of ourselves which thwart and frustrate unproductive desire can be kept at bay. Phillips argues that we want to be sane, to be kind, to be balanced, if only we can identify the forces within and without us that make these goals so elusive.

Going Sane is the most provocative of these arguments, as Phillips is really forced to define and elucidate a theory of sanity with very little material to draw on. “But it is rare, as we shall see, for sanity to be defined; more often than not it is referred to without its meaning ever being spelled out.” There has been, Phillips argues, little enthusiasm for exploring sanity or what a sane life would look like. The concept has to be teased out from madness, about which there has been considerable zest and many volumes of ink spilled. This in itself is part of the problem as Phillips sees it with regard to modernity: “It is worth wondering why, given the sheer scale of contemporary unhappiness, there are no accounts of what a sane life would look like. Or why a sane life might be more worth living than, say, a happy life, or a healthy life, or a successful life.” He examines aspects of life such as work, sex, and money, and wonders what it would be like to have a sane attitude toward them (some of the same themes recur in the essays of On Balance, which look at the drive for excess in these areas and wonder what a balanced approached to them might be).

Though the conclusions reached in both Going Sane and On Balance feel banal -- “The Good Life, however conceived, always entails having the right amount of money, and loving the right things” -- Phillips is always provocative in his methods: the means are always fascinating even when the ends disappoint. The essays in On Balance are uneven, and On Kindness is a little contrived, but Going Sane is up to Phillips's exacting standards of combining the literary and the psychoanalytic with a dash of the history of ideas. Sanity, Phillips muses, “has never troubled or fascinated people enough into speculating about it, or classifying it, or specializing in it.” We have no literature of sanity the way we do of madness. “We are living as if we must know what sanity is because we are so adept at recognizing insanity when we see it. If sanity were a game, how would you learn to play it if the authorities could tell you only when you had broken the rules, but not what the rules were? It would be enough to drive anyone mad.”

Although it's fun, reading Phillips can be a little maddening, too. The paradoxes piling up, the compulsive allusions and quotations (from Seneca to Shakespeare to Rousseau to R.D. Laing to W.H. Auden to John Banville to Lacan, et al and etc.), the obsession with what things are not, with the exception, with the extreme all make for a bewildering ride at times, as if the psychology, philosophy and belles lettres shelves were put in a blender and pureed. In an interview Phillips said, “I think of the books as more like dream work than propaganda,” and that sense of dream logic, of things connecting but not necessarily accreting, floats through his writing. Though the essays feel aphoristic they lose something in quotation, like dreams do in the telling.

And if, in his essays, Phillips is telling us his dreams, what kind of a world is he ultimately dreaming? “I would want a world in which there is less art and better relationships, if those two things are connected. I'd want it to be clear that the only game in town is improving the quality of people's relationships. Everything is about group life, it's as simple and as complicated as that.” This passage, like the one on sanity above, uses the metaphor of a game: it is as if he sees life as a series of interrelated games, not so odd for someone trained as a child psychoanalyst but not the usual attitude of a philosopher.

Yet in this passage Phillips is renouncing the sporting life (as well as the life of art) in favor of one of compassion, of stronger communities, of the brighter values he has been advocating in his last few books. If we can be saner, kinder, more balanced, we will have a better group life. In this way, it must be noted, he is following the same path of his hero Freud, who also went from writing and thinking about individuals to, well, worrying about society (in Civilization and Its Discontents, e.g.).

So maybe Phillips is a little bit worried about us. But as Phillips wrote in an early essay, “Worry and Its Discontents,” worry is a way of keeping someone or something near, and also a kind of antidote to dreams. “When we lie awake at night worrying, there may be a dream we are trying not to have.” Or: “All of us may be surrealists in our dreams, but in our worries we are incorrigibly bourgeois.” So in worrying about us let us hope that the dream work of Phillips's essays does not get thwarted -- for though it has already dipped into the territory of the incorrigibly bourgeois (what could be more so than writing about money?), it has not lost its power to move and challenge us. Rather, let him keep dreaming, and keep writing his unexpected and provocative essays on whatever topic that he might fancy, bright or dark. I'm not worried.