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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

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Vinyl makes us happy, here's why we're buying more of it

This once retro format is no longer the preserve of hipsters and music heads. 

So, vinyl sales are up again, with data today showing that sales of records have exceeded that of downloads for the first time. The forces behind this are a combination of the rational and the fashionable, to quote my friend Jim, a Glaswegian music nut in his mid 40s with a family and a sideline in buying and selling records on online marketplace Discogs. He packages up records to men like him who spent a lifetime in clubs and record shops but don’t go out any more, and who crave the cultural connection and community that music offers. Jim’s Discogs sales spike on Friday and Saturday nights when aging music heads drunkenly add another of his vinyl gems to basket. Sales drop off in January, he hypothesises, because his buyers are too sober and broke to pick up that Can “Tago Mago” UK original pressing in envelope sleeve for £140.  

Music released on vinyl is purposefully, trenchantly niche. It celebrates the fact that music isn’t for everyone: a limited edition pressing of a few hundred copies on Bradley Zero’s excellent Peckham label Rhythm Section International may only have an audience marginally above that number. But that doesn’t matter because there are thousands of niches being covered by record labels and private presses releasing new vinyl onto the market, as well as a mixed economy of places to buy a Guadeloupian zouk reissue (highly recommended) or a limited split 7” from Savages. Established record stores like Rough Trade continue to thrive in parallel to their own digital operations. You can buy vinyl direct from the artist on Bandcamp. The Independent Label Market host events across the UK which transform independent labels into market stall holders where they can sell their fresh musical produce direct to shoppers who have record bags not wicker baskets. It might be pricey, but the high resale value of your new vinyl means you can’t really lose, even if you decide that you spent £20-30 on a duffer.   

There’s also a practical reason for releasing music on vinyl, simply because there’s no point putting niche releases on streaming services because the returns are so low. CD sales are falling – they’ve dropped 84% in a decade in the US – although that hasn’t stopped French band Justice from hedging their bets: their last release “Woman” came on a new format that was one side CD and one side vinyl.

A caveat: don’t take the figures at face value. Record sales are overtaking downloads – but that’s also because no-one buys downloads any more. Why would you when you can stream the new Solange album on Apple Music or get lost in the Bandcamp rabbit hole for happy hours at a time?

There’s also a caveat on the quality thing. People often say that music sounds better on vinyl, and there is some truth in it, particularly if you’re a fan of the warming tones of a lovely crackle – but the argument fails to hold water when you’re talking about buying music on high quality wavs. These files, which contain more musical information than MP3s, which are known as “lossy” files because they literally chuck out a tonne of the sonic information in order to create a smaller file, sound great. But they kill your storage and most laptops and phones start to complain pretty damn quickly if you buy too many – unless like the record-buying hardcore, you’re also shelling out on giga-massive external hard drives. The quality argument doesn’t explain the popularity of coloured vinyl and picture discs either, which audiophiles will tell you sound distinctly inferior to gold-standard 180g black vinyl.  Something else must be going on, and our desire for vinyl tells us something about what we’re missing.

“I think people are bored of a digital way of listening,” says Nina Hervé of Rough Trade. “People want community again. Vinyl is a way of sharing your music with people in a communal space or by sharing pictures of what you’ve bought on Instagram. Records are the opposite of listening to music on headphones, which is a way of not talking to people on a train or in the office. It’s communal.”

Essentially, vinyl is a type of plastic, made from oil-derivative ethylene. Plastic is basically compressed sunshine, the product of ancient forests and the sunlight they absorbed, transformed into a conduit for another ancient human need – music. No wonder it makes us happy, and no wonder we’re buying more of it right now.

Emma Warren is a freelance editor and journalist.