Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

Drawings by Edward Gorey

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 land of lists and adjectives here. I found myself wishing for some pertinent example, something as simple even as a news story about excessive behavior through which Phillips—and the reader—might get a purchase on his pronouncements. It is as if Phillips has set himself the task of writing about the way we live, while forbidding the intrusion of actual living experience. I was reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s complaint, in A Farewell to Arms, about the obscenity of “abstract words” beside “the concrete names of villages.” The concrete is exactly what is missing, and its absence may explain why these essays are often more insistent than reflective. Do other people’s large appetites really arouse our disgust, fury, fear, and despair more than, say, personal illness, loss, or betrayal, just to name the most obvious?

Our fascination with other people’s excesses, with crimes of passion, for instance, seems to me to be similar to our attraction to the tragic in literature and theater. What captivates us is the chance to imagine behavior that we know we are capable of ourselves, and to be able to do so without putting anything personal at stake: the supremely dangerous presented in a situation of safety. We can contemplate the self-destruction that we have been spared. We tune in as voyeurs of our potential selves, to be reminded of the possible cost of our desires, to be warned. As often as not we behold the tragedies of others with hushed awe, not fury or even despair.

For Phillips, though, excess has a peculiar explanatory power:

There is nothing more telling, nothing more revealing of one’s own character and history and taste, than one’s reaction to other people’s excesses.

And then, again:

Nothing makes people more excessive than talking about excess. People are even more excessive when they talk about sexual excesses.

And so on, until we feel ourselves in the grip of an old propagandist ploy: repeat it until it becomes true.


What does “excess” mean in this essay? Phillips reminds us that the dictionary calls it the “extravagant violation of law, decency or morality.” A certain wariness sets in when he employs this definition to include things as different as boasting—a relatively harmless form of exaggerated talk—and genocide. Phillips seems to be reaching for an easy point of provocation, while at the same time stretching the meaning of “excess” to encompass any action or emotion that isn’t neutral or banal.

At one point he writes of “ordinary” excesses—“too much frustration, too much bad feeling, too little love, too little success, and so on”—which would seem to negate extravagance in favor of garden-variety fretfulness and neuroses. I suspect that his frame of reference comes, in part, from the daily reports he gets from his patients. As readers we are, in a sense, stand-ins for those patients, and sometimes his message resembles a comforting pat on the back. “It is impossible to overreact,” he assures us, given that our lives, even in the best of circumstances, are so beset by uncertainty and emotional confusion. Phillips doesn’t overtly say so, but we can infer from what he writes that if a billionaire, for example, feels bankrupt after losing an insignificant sum of money, what he really is feeling is a paucity of love or a fear of diminishing vitality for which money is merely the conscious representation.

How could we not feel that we are “too much for ourselves” when nature, in collaboration with the pressures and confoundment of affluent modern life, has dealt us—so Phillips suggests—such an incomprehensible hand? We are too hungry, too sexual, too helpless, too vulnerable, and too prone to quick fixes that would paper over our perennial discomfort.

This “too-muchness,” as Phillips calls it, this sense of being out of control in relation to our desires and needs, of feeling overwhelmed by the everyday intensity of our emotions, stays with us through life; it is our loyal companion. As young children we fear that we are too much for our parents to deal with, a feeling that puts us in mortal danger since we depend on them to survive; as adolescents we are too much for ourselves; and parents “are just people who have spent more time being too much for themselves.” Our excesses, writes Phillips in a typically broad pronouncement, “are the best clues we have to our own poverty; and our best way of concealing it from ourselves.”

“On What Is Fundamental” begins as a reprise of the piece on excess, and this sameness, this predictability of thought, dogs much of Phillips’s writing. Like excessiveness, “the fundamental things are the things that upset us.” Phillips is referring to the beliefs we hold—about politics, sex, religion—that remain fixed in the face of hard evidence that might disprove them. As with excess, he broadens the scope of the word from one that describes the Christian belief in the Bible as a literal, inerrant text to one that signifies any nonnegotiable area of defense, such as the “fanatical” protectiveness one may feel for one’s children.

Phillips’s point is that we are all fundamental about something, and we should take this into account when, as liberals and modernists—and the “psychoanalytically minded”—we condemn religious fanaticism as a primitive state of belief that we have collectively outgrown. Often characterized as militantly antimodern, fundamentalism for Phillips is really a branch of modernism, in the sense that it came into existence as a response to the psychic and political upheavals of the early twentieth century.

Psychoanalysis, it seems to me, is also a branch of modernism, providing a method for the average person to conduct his own version of the internal monologue of literature. Like the Cubists, Freud drew from the ancients, the primal. In the Greek and Shakespearean tragedies that sparked some of his central theories, the destinies of the characters are preordained. One of the projects of psychoanalysis was to replace traditional morality. Instead of the Ten Commandments with their absolute moral injunctions—the Decalogue of the superego—we are given drives.

As a contrast to fundamentalism, Phillips employs John Gray’s definition of liberalism as being “not a partisan claim for the universal authority of a particular morality, but the search for terms of coexistence between different moralities.” Liberalism is a mediating force, a persuader, an intervener in conflicts, not a movement for the founding of a “universal civilization.” Modern liberalism is based on the premise that all views can be discussed, fundamentalism on the fact that there is nothing to discuss.

Phillips’s rather daring leap is to draw an analogy between the culture wars of the liberals and fundamentalists on the one hand, and the wars waged within ourselves, based on Freud’s configuration of the human psyche. In the analogy, the superego and the id, with their unbending strictures, are the voices of fundamentalism. The ego, with its putative, and somewhat magical, capacity to look at reality objectively, is for Freud the conflict resolver, the middleman brokering a deal of coexistence between irreconcilable forces. The ego, in one of Phillips’s clever turns of phrase, is “a democrat in a world of fascists.”


It was the later Freud, the post–World War I Freud, who turned to the ego as our only means for restricting (or at least regulating) the internal forces of unfettered aggression. Freud’s personality theory, as it is sometimes called, was largely devised to incorporate the death instinct into his earlier theories of the unconscious. His ego-id-superego configuration is essentially a revision, a correction, with the opposing drives of death and sex—thanatos and eros—supplanting the theory of repressed sexual ideas trapped in the unconscious. On the surface, eros versus thanatos possesses a pleasing, aesthetic symmetry that the earlier theory lacked. Taken as a whole, however, the personality theory has a gerry-rigged, transplanted quality, like a painting an artist feels dissatisfied with and twenty years later tries, with mixed results, to “fix.”1

Phillips reasonably calls the ego Freud’s “most modern, progressivist fiction.” He then proceeds to apply this fiction as a metaphor for the liberal democrat in the contemporary cultural war, extending a theory of the mind to a wider social setting. The metaphor is enjoyable, and a little silly. It is attractive precisely as a fiction—its speculative quality falls within the safe heart of Phillips’s more generalized interest. His approach to Freud is reverential, even when he is being mildly critical, but he does Freud no favors. In a way, Phillips exemplifies the degeneration of Freudian analysis that has occurred over the past thirty or so years—from a system of therapy with actual clinical application to a shorthand for engaging in a broadly nebulous form of social and literary criticism.

Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

It seems important to point out that Phillips appears to agree with Jacques Lacan that the ego is a “misrecognition” of the self. For Lacan, no part of the self can be infallibly objective; we are always limited by an imperfect knowledge of ourselves. What we are and what we appear to be can never match. The ego invents a story about ourselves that we wish to believe, and this story is constantly under attack from our employers, our children, our romantic companions, our friends, who, in turn, carry an equally incomplete narrative of themselves. The Freudian ego, as Phillips sees it, is a higher form of self-consciousness, “mysteriously knowing about its own nature,” possessing, in Anna Freud’s words, “the faculty of self-observation.” The ego knows what it wants, it knows what is best for us. By bestowing it with such power, Freud ran the risk of inventing a fundamentalism of his own, a new scripture that, like the Bible, has an all-knowing force at its center that we need only to accept, and heed. Like all scripture the theory has the advantage of requiring no proof or even observable data to support it.

In an essay entitled “The Helpless,” Phillips offers several flashes of insight on Freud’s concept of helplessness as it evolved through his career. Helplessness is the state into which we are born—“original helplessness,” Freud called it, echoing the Christian idea of original sin (part of Freud’s attempt, perhaps, to create his own myth of origins). In Freud’s view, we’re all like Shakespeare’s Richard III, “deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before [our] time/Into this breathing world.” Our gestation period in the womb is too short, our period of dependence too long, and like Richard, in Freud’s own words, “we demand reparation for early wounds to our narcissism, our self-love.” The aim of psychoanalysis is to liberate us from this demand.

In Freud’s original helplessness, we are infants crying for food, and therefore for our lives. When nourishment arrives, in the form of the encompassing warmth of the mother, a state of complete and unrepeatable satisfaction is experienced—a state of grace in religious terms—that we are doomed to try to recapture in later years.

As a result of this drama, Freud envisioned two very different kinds of development. In his early writing, our helplessness alerts us to our need for others: if we are helpless, we seek help. In The Origins of Psychoanalysis he wrote that the cry of the hungry infant has the important secondary function of “bringing about an understanding with other people; and the original helplessness of human beings is thus the primal source of all moral motives.” Helplessness and need become the foundation for a nonreligious morality, a morality driven by a fellowship of mutual necessity rather than commandments from an invisible God from up on high who knows nothing of helplessness himself and has little tolerance for it. This was Freud’s view in 1910. Modern cognitive psychologists and attachment theorists have tended to agree with him, expanding on the moral intensity of the bond between caregiver and child as our most effective, and crucial, initiation to ethics.2

Seventeen years later, in The Future of an Illusion, Freud is far more pessimistic. Religious ideas, in a passage Phillips quotes, are a result of

the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood…and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fears of the dangers of life….

Instead of presenting the possibility of a solution worked out with others, original helplessness becomes something we seek to protect ourselves from with the creation of an all-powerful father or God. With this God, Freud intimates, comes a false morality, an imposed morality that turns us into eternal children, susceptible to crude demagoguery and manipulation. Phillips calls it “our self-cure…for the fact that we are helpless subjects.”

Unfortunately, most of the essays in On Balance lack the detail of his comments on Freud. More typical are pieces such as “Should School Make You Happy?,” about yet another contested concept: happiness. Almost immediately, Phillips shifts the focus from “happiness” to “pleasure,” as if the words were synonyms. But pleasure, it seems to me, is a subgenre of happiness, if they’re connected at all. It comes in finite doses and its pursuit is often an attempt to keep unhappiness at bay. Once Phillips assigns an indistinguishable value to pleasure and happiness, he runs the risk of equating happiness with fetishistic behavior, such as sadism. “Cruelty makes some people happy…. People can do terrible things as a means to the end when that end is happiness.” Never do we get a specific instance of happiness or even a notion of what it might comprise.

Phillips’s thinking is so muddled on the subject that his prose devolves into sheer incomprehensibility:

So if I can just rephrase the title of this essay again, it might be, “Should Education Make You Interested in Happiness?”, and my answer would be yes. Should education make us happy? Well, no, but only because nothing and no one can make us happy, as in do something to us that will create this wonderful thing.

Finally, as if throwing in the towel, he admits, “Happiness is a very difficult thing to be clear about.” We are left to ask ourselves why he has written this essay at all.

The title—On Balance—attempts to provide the collection with a unifying theme: the paradoxical idea that “balance can unbalance us.” When we talk about the things that matter to us, we “lose our so-called balanced views,” writes Phillips in a summation of the book’s central message. Balanced budget, balance of power, balanced diet are all to be aspired to, marks of order and control. When it comes to the self, however, disequilibrium is more likely to tell us the untidy truth “about our own fears and longings,” knowledge that we need but that our willful quest for a balanced life may be concealing. This is the unsurprising conclusion of almost every one of these essays: what disturbs us most should be looked at with an unrecoiling eye, for what it can reveal to us about ourselves.

It doesn’t come as news to be reminded that abnormality is really the norm. Much of psychology, and medicine in general for that matter, is founded on an ability to describe accurately what has broken down. Balance, when applied to an individual psyche, is even more indeterminate than happiness or authenticity or—the subject of another essay in this collection—perfection. Phillips refers to balance in “its many senses” but doesn’t give much of an inkling of what these senses are, proceeding as if we tacitly understand—an assumption that makes reading these essays a bit like looking at a face that has been blocked out in order to conceal the identity of the subject. He appears, unintentionally, to equate balance with a state of minimal aliveness. We recognize it not for what it is, but for what it is not: it is not passion, not desire, not aggression or frustration or exuberance, not sorrow or fear.

If we take this all the way to its logical conclusion, balance becomes a kind of medicated state, achievable when the brain’s centers of engagement are chemically tamped down. One might then conclude that people suffering from schizophrenia and manic depression, whose psyches are most imbalanced, have the best chance of being wrenched into “balance,” since they take the most stifling medication, arriving at a state that may be best described as indifference, the most perversely abnormal state of all.

This is absurd, of course, but Phillips has a way of provoking absurdist responses, in rebellion, perhaps, against his clamorously sagacious tone. On Balance contains some intriguing ideas, but they are often drowned out by a repetitive, clause-laden prose, bulked up with what feel like off-the-rack profundities. He has an appealing talent for epigrams (“Wanting to sleep is wanting something that no one can give you, but that anyone can stop you having”). But most of the time they are offered in place of developed thought, a way to escape from an idea rather than explore it—verbal pirouettes that clarify nothing.

You may think you have wandered into a pop psychology text when you read:

I don’t want to be a suicide bomber, but I may want to have something in my life that is so important to me that I would risk my life for it.

Sometimes he’ll state the unprovable in what appears to be an attempt to strike a note of solidarity with the presumed anguish of his readers: “More and more people are living lives of unbearable conflict.” This is the gambit of the lifestyle coach: tell the reader he is not alone and then point the way forward. To Phillips’s credit, he doesn’t offer facile solutions, he just writes like someone who will do so. The rhetoric aims high but the content is modest. He leaves you with the questions he poses.