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Why are we sometimes so reluctant to enjoy ourselves – even when we're allowed?

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips is a profound meditation on the ways we deny ourselves pleasure.

In the sage words of the novelist William Maxwell, “It is impossible to say why people put so little value on complete happiness.” The psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips has, for some time, been engaged in investigating this enigma. A recent collection of essays, Missing Out, explored our propensity to attach a greater value to what we have not, rather than what we have. His latest book, Unforbidden Pleasures, is a profound meditation on our reluctance to enjoy ourselves as we might and, more crucially, as we are apparently granted the freedom to do.

A good deal of complex thinking and ­reference is compressed into two hundred or so pages. Phillips’s first witness is Oscar Wilde, whose provocatively intelligent statement on political engagement – “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings” – sets the book’s terms. “It is, of course, Wilde’s point that socialism interferes with sociability,” Phillips comments. Our ideologies – whether extraneous, as political or moral systems, or internalised – estrange us from our more creative and enjoyable instincts.

If Phillips sees in Wilde an ally, it is because the latter’s epicureanism made him suspicious of all enemies of pleasure, most especially self-inflicted punishment. A mistaken respect for a forbidding authority is, in Phillips’s view, the basis of conscience. He considers this problematic concept through the example of Hamlet, a character with whom Freud was also much preoccupied: “Tragedy is the cultural form in which we are trying to reveal something not about the real horror of life, but about the horror of life lived under the aegis of a certain kind of conscience.” Rather than seeking to actualise a limiting ideal that can never be realised (according to Phillips, this is the tragic norm), Hamlet is unusual in ­exploring, in his self-reproaches, alternative ways of being.

In Hamlet’s best-known soliloquy, “To be, or not to be” – a rumination with resonances as wide as the sea – we encounter the line: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” In the Second Quarto, this appears as: “Thus conscience does make cowards.” From this more open-ended version, Phillips launches a stellar exploration of the  politics of intimidation as the basis of our so-called morality.

To be moral by dint of intimidation is not to be moral at all but to be the hapless citizen of a totalitarian system. Much of our behaviour is at the behest of an inner censor, absorbed through our upbringing, whose influence is at best restrictive – a cruel clipper of wings – and at worst murderous. Guilt, Phillips wants to persuade us, is often the fearful reaction to this internalised tyrant’s disapproval, rather than a result of honest remorse. With the terrible phrase “to be ashamed of yourself”, it is worth asking, Phillips suggests, what made the self of whom one is enjoined to be ashamed.

But in Shakespeare’s day, “conscience” also meant “consciousness” – and consciousness can seem to make us cowards, not through intimidation but by exploring realms of thought that break the prevailing rules. Freud appears never to have questioned the call to revenge that Hamlet buckles under. He perceives Hamlet’s procrastination and ensuing self-criticism as no more than the displacement of violence towards his murdering uncle, never considering that Hamlet’s “conscience” may also be a disinclination to obey a dead father’s demand. If, as Hamlet suggests, “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” it may well be, as Phillips speculates, that he is attempting to hunt down and bag Claudius’s shabby morality in order to expose it on a public stage. But it may also be an attempt to engage Claudius in a more creative conversation through play (or, to be specific, a play – for Hamlet, as well as being an artist’s protégé, is an artist).

Phillips never quite spells this out but it seems the natural conclusion to his thinking. For the play that Hamlet puts on is surely an unforbidden pleasure, in striking contrast to the highly forbidden pleasure of murder. Wilde provocatively claimed that all art is immoral, but that is so only if “moral” means “doing the done thing”. It is part of Phillips’s point that the forbidden becomes enticing; in an environment of free choice, it may be naturally eschewed.

Phillips would probably demur at being described as a religious writer. Yet he is, I think, in the wider sense, because he explores seriously the great moral themes that play in the theatre of human consciousness. It is inevitable, therefore, that the Genesis myth is evoked. Why did God forbid His human creations to eat of the tree of know­ledge of good and evil? Surely, in His omniscience, He was aware that by forbidding it He was prompting the disobedience that led, in Milton’s epic words, to “all our woe”. But what if all God was doing was describing a consequence – if you do this, then that follows? Maybe the real sin of our “first parents” was in hearing a forbidden in what was only, after all, a health-and-safety warning: the foolhardy sin, as Phillips might see it, of choosing tragedy over contentment and play.

Phillips has said that what he most desires for his readers is that they be stimul­ated into new thoughts. With this supremely thought-provoking book, he roundly succeeds.

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips is published by Hamish Hamilton (208pp, £14.99)

Salley Vickers is an author and former psychoanalyst. Her latest collection of short stories, The Boy Who Could See Death , is published by Viking

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war

Picture: STAVROS DAMOS
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Jonathan Safran Foer Q&A: “I feel like every good piece of advice boils down to patience”

The author on delivering babies, Chance The Rapper, and sailing down the Erie Canal.

Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the novels “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, and the nonfiction book “Eating Animals”. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

What’s your earliest memory?

Falling asleep on my dad’s chest on a swing at my grandparents’ house. But the memory is a bit suspicious because there is a photograph and I remember my mum taking it, so I guess I wasn’t really asleep.

Who are your heroes?

The only person I have ever been nervous to meet, or whose presence felt larger than life, is Barack Obama. I don’t think that makes him a hero but there are many ways in which I aspire to be more like him.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Man Is Not Alone by Abraham Joshua Heschel. It’s a meditation on religion – not really organised religion but the feeling of religiosity and spirituality. I can’t believe how clear he is about the most complicated subjects that feel like language shouldn’t be able to capture. It really changed me.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

There was a period of about two years when my kids and I would go to an inn every other weekend so maybe the inns of Mid-Atlantic states? I’m not sure Mastermind would ever ask about that, though, so my other specialism is 20th century architecture and design.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would be very happy to return to my childhood in Washington, DC. In a way, what I would really like is to be somewhere else at another time as somebody else. 

What TV show could you not live without?

I really like Veep, it’s unbelievably funny – but I could definitely live without it. Podcasts, on the other hand, are something that I could live without but might not be able to sleep without.

What’s your theme tune?

I don’t have a theme tune but I do have a ringtone, which is this Chance The Rapper song called “Juice”. Every time it rings, it goes: “I got the juice, I got the juice, I got the juice, juice, juice.” I absolutely love it and I find myself singing it constantly.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

It isn’t really delivered as advice but King Solomon says in the Bible: “This, too, shall pass.” I feel like every good piece of advice I’ve ever heard – about parenting, writing, relationships, inner turmoil – boils down to patience.

When were you happiest?

I took a vacation with my two sons recently where we rented a narrowboat and sailed down Erie Canal. We were so drunk on the thrill of hiring our own boat, the weather, the solitude, just the excitement of it. I can’t remember being happier than that.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

An obstetrician. No obstetrician comes home on a Friday and thinks: “I delivered 20 babies this week, what’s the point?” The point is so self-evident. Writing is the opposite of that. I managed not to fill any pages this week with my bad jokes and trite ideas, flat images and unbelievable characters. Being a part of the drama of life in such a direct way really appeals to me.

Are we all doomed?

We’re all going to die. Isn’t that what it is to be doomed? There is a wonderful line at the end of Man Is Not Alone, which is something along the lines of: for the person who is capable of appreciating the cyclicality of life, to die is privilege. It’s not doom but one’s ultimate participation in life. Everything needs to change.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel “Here I Am” is published in paperback by Penguin

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem