Book Review: Adam Phillips' "On Balance"

On Balance

Adam Phillips

Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 314 pp., $26

What is it, exactly, that makes reading Adam Phillips such a refreshing, rewarding and invigorating experience? A psychoanalyst who splits his time between his private practice and his writing, Phillips is well known in the United Kingdom for his thoughtful, frequently meandering essays on diverse and often unexpected topics; and it is perhaps precisely the difficulty of these challenging and puzzling essays that explains their charm. In an age whose "literature" frequently comprises predigested simulacra of actual thought, a writer who resists immediate understanding rather than catering to his audience's desire for easy certainty is bound to appeal to those readers who still pick up a book hoping to be changed rather than consoled, provoked rather than reassured.

As its title suggests, Phillips' new book is structured around the concept of balance — and around its opposite. "On Balance" is, it turns out, deeply concerned with the state of being unbalanced: with being obsessed, disturbed, irrational, off kilter. The short essay "In Excess" (the first of the "Five Short Talks on Excess" that open the book) contemplates our fascination with the perceived excessive behaviors of celebrities, our friends and ourselves:

"We are excessively interested in the excessive behavior that interests us; and to be excessively interested is to be more interested than we would like to be. So even though it would be silly to say that our reaction to other people's excesses is the key to our nature — because there is no key to our nature — it is true to say, I think, that our reactions to other people's excesses reveal to us what our conflicts are. I don't want to be a drug addict, but I do want to be free to need someone; and I don't want to lose my life when I do need them."

The question of excess recurs in what seems to me the standout essay of the collection, "On What Is Fundamental," a lengthy and profound meditation on the idea of fundamentalism. Like the best of Phillips' work, "On What Is Fundamental" extends his concerns beyond the realm of the individual to the social and the political, while managing to avoid falling into the ordinary and generally unproductive ways of thinking about society and politics:

"Freud, in other words, is wondering, through the fictions of psychoanalysis, whether there is anything more to the modern individual, anything other than this war of fundamentals that always pre-exist the individual and into which he was born. Freud wants to know what extremes modern people are subject to, and why we don't want to describe ourselves as extremists. Freud's work is part of the post-enlightenment project of working out what we can be if we are not fanatics, or whether this in itself is the ultimate illusion of the progressivist modern individual. It might be part of this project, which I think psychoanalysis is party to, to give an account of a good life that would not entail beliefs to kill, die or torture for."

The phrase "the fictions of psychoanalysis" gestures toward another of Phillips' main virtues, his dogged and admirable resistance to the glorification of science that characterizes the art of our times. In an age in which many humanists are desperate to insist that their work is empirical and "scientific"— and therefore intellectually valid and respectable — Phillips is famous, or notorious, for denying that psychoanalysis is a science at all: It is, in his view, akin to poetry or literature, an expression of inspiration and insight rather than a record of measurement and experiment, let alone some sort of predictive device.

Then again, the word "essay" originally meant something like "attempt" or "experiment," and Phillips' essays are surely experimental in this sense. Part of the charm of his writing is the way it moves unpredictably and at times giddily from thought to thought. He is always, it seems, on the verge of changing his mind, reversing what he has just proposed, or deciding that the opposite of what he has just said is equally plausible. It's not for nothing that the Irish novelist John Banville has called Phillips "an Emerson of our time."

It is characteristic of Phillips that the essays collected in "On Balance" canvass an impressively and enjoyably wide variety of topics, from educational theory and practice ("Should School Make You Happy?") to the nature of authenticity ("The Authenticity Issue") to fairy tales ("Jack and His Beanstalk" and " Cinderella and Men: The Least of Her Problems"). Several contemporary artists and authors, including W.G. Sebald, W.H. Auden and Diane Arbus, also receive memorable and insightful consideration.

"I don't have theories, I have sentences," Phillips once told an interviewer. Sentence by sentence, page by page, and book by book, Phillips is one of the richest and most rewarding essayists of our time. He is also, it is worth mentioning, one of the most quotable. "We buy souvenirs to help us remember," he says at one point, "and then what we remember are the souvenirs." Elsewhere, sounding like an ordinary language philosopher from early 20th century Oxford or Cambridge, he points out that "We get lost. It is something we get." The experience of getting lost is perhaps deeply akin to the experience of reading "On Balance"; and the reader who is not always sure that he is getting Phillips might take comfort in the thought that being lost in the ideas of an intelligent writer is something very much worth getting.