On Balance: Adam Phillips, Part I

For Adam Phillips, who has authored close to two-dozen, books, there is no such thing as too many words, contradictions, or questions left unanswered. He has managed to fit more insights, and dense, dichotomous, mind-bending maxims into these 300 pages than I can possibly review in one piece.

When I was researching his biography, I came across an interview he gave to the Paris Review (if you’ve never perused their writer’s interview section, I highly recommend it). It brought me back to Aliza’s introduction. She had this incredible idea that when engrossed in a good book, the characters of the story, or certain feelings evoked through the text, stay with us, and we carry them with us throughout the day. They lurk in the recesses of our mind, we even compare our actions to these fictional characters, thinking what they might do if they were in our situation.

“but what is clear is that there are powerful unconscious evocative effects in reading books that one loves. There’s something about these books that we want to go on thinking about, that matters to us. They’re not just fetishes that we use to fill gaps. They are like recurring dreams we can’t help thinking about.” – Adam Phillips, The Paris Review, The Art of Non-Fiction No. 7bomb-76-phillips

Phillips, a British psychoanalyst, born to Jewish Polish émigrés, is a reader’s writer, meaning that he is not only a prolific writer, but more impressively, a prolific reader. As a psychologist, he follows closely in Freud’s footsteps; his focus on sex, transgression, and the child-parent relationship follows the classic framework. Yet, his views are refreshing, and he doesn’t hesitate to criticize Freud, or offer new lenses from which to question the Freudian framework.

The book is split up into short essays, most of which were given as talks, or previously published in the Guardian. This makes for an incoherent, at times, painful read.

For a book on balance, Phillips begins with an expose on the antonymous condition, that of excess. He makes the case for why looking at our relationship to excess is perhaps a more interesting, and more useful intellectual activity to understand balance, than by some moral sententious self-help guide.

So how can excess be useful to us? Some questions he asks, and leaves uncomfortably open, include: Perhaps only through giving into our desires and addictions can we learn how to think more realistically about them?

Maybe the duty of being young is to be excessive, break the rules, and push our boundaries, in order to understand what they are made of. This is how do we learn when enough is enough. (I quite like that interpretation, perhaps because it assuages my guilt for having taken such an excessive and over-determined life path).

A couple of insights he brings us in the first essay include that it seems impossible to have a discussion about excess without becoming excessive ourselves—in our reaction, in our language, in our excessive interest. This is a good example of how we treat celebrities: does their excessively lavish lifestyle allow us to take an excessive interest in their romantic and social lives?

Second, he thinks that one’s reactions to other’s excesses holds the key to revealing our inner conflicts: say, for example, we are greatly repulsed by drug addicts—this stems not from a fear of our own potential drug addiction, but rather, of other fears elicited by our own overwhelming dependence, or need for love and attachment. We hope to have the freedom to feel this need, without endangering our lives. Yet, excess may be a good thing in life, if we learn to manage the fears associated with it. Excess has the power to bring us to a place where we can think more deeply, and all of life’s most radically transformative experiences (falling in love, conversions, or feeling of injustices) are marked by certain necessary excess.

“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 ideals or religious beliefs.” (Phillips, p.6)

He leaves us with an insightful, reflexive quote worthy of Jacques Lacan, who says that “One is never, in any way whatever, overwhelmed by another person’s excesses, one is only and always overwhelmed because their excesses happen to coincide with your own.”





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