Like many psychoanalysts, Adam Phillips has an ahistorical view of humanity. What interests him is frustration, helplessness, sexual desire—the eternal psychic tides that overwhelm us and drive us on. Phillips likes to remind us of “how fantastically ignorant we are about ourselves.” For him, political culture, wars, and economic upheavals are symptoms of this ignorance rather than determining forces. In his essays, his tone is that of the sage who can explain our anxieties and shed light on the conflicts that are our inescapable destiny. We want comfort and we want guidance, we want love and power and sex. We want, we want, to paraphrase the incantation of Eugene Henderson in Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson the Rain King. And what we want most is to ensure that we continue wanting.
Phillips has been a practicing analyst for thirty years, and On Balance is his fourteenth book to riff on Freud and the psychoanalytic views of the human condition. I say “riff” because his thinking is circuitous and associative, his prose alternately—and sometimes simultaneously—that of the pundit, the how-to guru, and the literary critic. Despite his substantial amount of clinical experience, there is no trace in these essays of the practitioner dealing with the psychic struggles of specific patients. We are not in the clinic, the scientist’s lab, or even the analyst’s office.
Instead, Phillips casts a speculative, Freudian eye on such large-bore issues as traditional morality versus desire, fundamentalism versus skepticism, frustration versus satisfaction. For the most part, he seems more interested in expanding on a question than supplying its answer, but sometimes he seems unsure of the question itself. Among the obstacles he faces are the elusive meanings of the concepts around which he builds his essays. Happiness, authenticity, excess, balance: these are the ideas he sees in play throughout social life, each with a subjective, ever-shifting definition that can never be fully resolved. It is as if they exist to create illusions rather than dispel them.
In his “Five Short Talks on Excess,” originally delivered as a series of programs on the BBC, Phillips writes as if he is trying to make the word “excess” sit still long enough for him to wring from it an overarching worldview. It opens with the sentence, “Nothing makes people more excessive than talking about excess.” Nothing? How excessive can talk be when compared to action? I was willing to overlook this as a rhetorical flourish, an attention-grabbing device, until, five pages later, I read:
Nothing makes us more excessive than excess; nothing makes us more disapproving, disgusted, punitive—not to mention fascinated, exhilarated and amazed—than other people’s extravagant appetite for food, or alcohol, or money, or drugs, or violence; nothing makes us more frightened, more furious, more despairing than other people’s extreme commitment to political ideas….
We are in the dulling…
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