Death wish

Darwin's Worms

Adam Phillips <em>Faber & Faber, 148pp, £7.99</em>

ISBN 0571200036

Adam Phillips's Darwin's Worms is engaging, clever, full of surprises. Connections are made that force us to think. There is much to agree with. One of the book's central tenets is both true and important: that the death of a supervenient God means that loss is absolute, and that if we believe in such a world, this truth has to be faced. There are no supernatural redemptions or ultimate recoveries of lost others. The comparison of Freud and Darwin is well made. Both these thinkers undermined our narcissism - Darwin through attacking our position as the pinnacle of creation, Freud our omniscient place in our own minds.

In a world without God, suffering cannot be redeemed from outside nature. Yet for both Darwin and Freud the finality of death creates and confirms value rather than destroys it. Instead of despair at the transience of life, both agree that it enhances life. For Darwin, the sublimity of nature is no less real; and the earthworm provides an image - a symbol even - of values that go beyond the mere competition for survival. The co-operative work of these lowly underground workers provides the conditions for man's survival and enrichment.

Both Darwin and Freud see death as an organising principle of life. Freud says that transience is beauty provided that we are able to mourn - that is, to feel pain but gradually detach ourselves from the lost object and move on. Healthy mourning is the vital alternative to, as Phillips puts it, "the refuge of illusion, the confidence of nihilism or the omniscience of the tragic vision". For him happiness is made real by the refusal to be disillusioned as a result of false ideals of perfectibility. So what is called the "reality principle" offers a refined form of happiness. Phillips, quoting E M Forster, puts it succinctly: "Death destroys a man; but the idea of death saves him."

Both Freud and Darwin are interested in the legacy of the past, in the evolution of the species or the individual. But both also proclaim the need to adapt, change and move on. "The future is not caused by the past," Phillips writes, "it is merely informed by it."

The chapter on Freud is dense, perhaps even forced for the sake of the thesis. There is a long discussion of the "death instinct" - the deep wish to return to the inanimate, to destroy life and break links. This can be manifested in a wide range of psychic states, from the destructiveness of the psychopath, and the negativity of self-destruction and despair, to the often unconscious spoliation of the best efforts of the psychoanalyst in promoting self-understanding. Phillips is right to see some elements of this tendency in Freud's early destruction of his own papers and letters in order to stymie future biographers, and in his refusal, much later, to give his blessing to a biography. (He may, however, simply have wished to keep the dark side of himself private.) Phillips makes the provocatively interesting suggestion that this antipathy may have been a displaced scepticism about the value of "biographies" - the personal narratives that are the stuff of psychoanalysis.

Phillips sees another example of the death instinct in Freud's desire to "die in his own way", and offers descriptions, from different points of view, of his actual death. In this model, death structures Freud's narrative drama of the psyche in terms of the need to accept transience, both generally and within each individual life.

In reading and re-reading this book, I find myself constantly pulled in two ways, sometimes within a single page. My overriding impression is of enrichment. The overall thesis argues for one of the central insights of psychoanalysis: that only by modifying, rather than evading, the inevitable frustrations of life can we live life fully.

My own take on the clinical usefulness and value of the death instinct lies here, in the constant struggle between the wish for a non-thinking solution and the work and courage needed to stay with whatever conflicts face us. Our lifelong struggle with narcissism is to be found here, as Darwin and Freud illuminate so movingly. And Phillips's extended essay may be seen as his own playful and creative version of this.

But I find certain aspects of his thinking harder to admire. Phillips writes with enviable panache; but sometimes he takes paradoxes and contradictions rather too much in his stride. He seems to lack the careful attention to detail that he professes to admire in Darwin. And his use of the concept of the death instinct is a little cavalier; he confuses, I think, its diverse layers of meaning. He tends to slip, too, between different notions of moral value. He appears to suggest that in science there is no room for moral values except as tacked-on preferences and prejudices, and in so doing he reduces psychology to mere adaptation of biology. And yet he refers to the "refusal to mourn as being the refusal to live". This is a different take on life, one that acknowledges the intrinsic moral complexity of human psychology.

In my opinion, to talk about the human being at the level that a psychoanalyst - or a novelist - is interested in, is already to occupy moral ground. As the psychoanalyst Money-Kyrle argued, there are deep psychological facts of life that have emotional and moral implications - such as the existence of a sexual couple who gave us life. We either have to come to terms with these realities or live in delusion, denial or distortion.

If we cannot learn to bear the pain of lack of omnipotence, we damage those we love, ravage our own capacities and make others and ourselves suffer from our arrogance and from the hidden destructiveness of our envy and jealousy. Such outcomes, which are in a sense the raw material for psychoanalysts, occupy a universe that is inevitably moral; lives thus lived hover on the verge of the tragic, or tip over into it as a result of hubris. Such a world also offers a space for recognition, remorse and a change of heart. Secular redemption is not a myth.

The reductionist streak in Phillips's philosophy means that Darwin's Worms lacks this clear dimension of hubris and the tragic. It offers as a substitute the important register of the ironic. But there is a depletion all the same, for which, ironically, aspects of the language and thought of poor, discarded religion (as referring to individual spirituality) might offer one antidote.

Michael Brearley is a former England cricket captain. He works as a psychoanalyst