Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003) 444-449
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Psychoanalysis and Morality
Equals, by Adam Phillips; 246 pp. New York: Basic Books, 2002, $25.00.
I THINK I WOULD RECOGNIZE an unattributed essay by Adam Phillips by its manner. Every serious writer aspires to such recognition. A comment on the book jacket of his latest collection of essays Equals tells us that his "territory is complication," though "he reports back in the simplest of words." The words may be simple, but the movement of thought through the sentence, the paragraph and an entire essay is not. His way with complication, as I hope to show, is not always to Phillips's credit. The difficulty in reading him is in trying to know where he or she is being taken. The complication often leads to inconclusiveness, which is not a fault if the problem is insoluble or the situation genuinely intractable. Too often, however, the complication seems to reflect a love of it for its own sake. On other occasions, it degenerates into obscurantism.
When Phillips does take a stand, he deliberately plants himself on shifting sands. As his title suggests, he is an egalitarian democrat, to which he brings the perspective of psychoanalysis. (He was Principal Child Psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital in London.) All hierarchy is anathema, all claims to superiority are to be resisted. Authority turns into authoritarianism. These are my sentences, uttered in an apodictic style, foreign to that of Phillips, but they reflect a view (his view) that the prose sometimes blurs. In its psychoanalytic application, the psychoanalyst is or should be unseated from his superior [End Page 444] position. Both the analyst and the analysand need to listen to what each has to say without passing (premature?) judgment, a model for all human interactions. (Phillips does not say whether the listener is permitted to distinguish sense from nonsense.) Conflict should be the rule, for where there is no conflict there is suppression. (But conflict on either side usually presupposes a desire to impose one's will on another. Is there a distinction to be made between fruitful and destructive conflict? Again Phillips has nothing to say on the subject.) As for the meaning of equality, he avoids all the real-life obstacles to genuine equality. He approves of Chantal Mouffe's version in which there can never be "an equality of wealth, or talent or beauty," but rather "an equality of rivenness, an equality of unknowingness, the equality of there being no foundations to master." I am not sure I understand what it means to be equal in rivenness. I believe that we are all unknowing in many ways, but not that we are equally unknowing. Is equality (in the presence?) of no foundations the same as equality in the prospect of death? In any event, I'm pretty sure that no authoritarian person or institution would be much troubled when faced with these banners of equality.
Yet equality is a serious matter for Phillips, so serious that in another essay he is troubled by the threat that laughter presents. In a characteristically tortuous essay in which he tries conscientiously to sort out the benign and malign effects of mockery and ridicule, he ends by concluding that mockery is "the emotional terror of democracy" and "that what is always being ridiculed is our wish to be together, our secret affinity for each other." Always? Phillips of course knows the pleasures of ridicule, even its benignly toxic effect on our self-importance. But he begins from such an extreme position of its noxiousness (at the beginning of the essay he cites Primo Levi's initial response to the concentration camp as a joke: how could it possibly be what it purports to be?) that he cannot shake himself of the solemnity of his democratic conviction to allow a place for the human comedy. I wonder too at the authority of his claim for "our secret affinity for each other." The difficulty of democracy or togetherness for many or at least some may be precisely the secret aversion that they have for...