Jul/Aug 2006 Book Reviews

Depths of Sanity

Adam Phillips.
Going Sane: Maps of Happiness.

Fourth Estate / HarperCollins. 2005.
ISBN 0007155395/P>

Review by Martha G. Wiseman

Buy now from Amazon! Adam Phillips' mind is voracious, deeply literate, and wide-ranging. The breadth, probity, and relevance of his literary references—in this book, Johnson, George Crabb, Dickens, Erasmus, Larkin, Carlyle, Emerson, Nietzsche, Robert Lowell, and above all Orwell, whose 1984, Phillips writes, "is our touchstone for the significance, political and otherwise, of the battle for the final definition of sanity"—charm us, alert us. To say his prose is aphoristic is by now nearly itself an aphorism; his ability to turn a phrase on the most imprecise and mysterious of problems of the human psyche is a kind of high-wire act. Phillips can make paradoxes thorny, but he can also make them palatable. He has always been deeply conscious of the elusiveness and contingencies of language, of "the uneasy marriage of word and desire" as he put it in his 1998 book, The Beast in the Nursery. The risk Phillips' writing takes is that even as he urges us to refrain from denying conflict, the conflicts may go down too easily.

Phillips sets out in Going Sane to figure out what we mean by sanity and to chase down the possibility of defining sanity, a nebulous notion, often seen, as Phillips repeatedly assures us, as colorless, bland, even vapid and trite in contrast with that protean, endlessly intriguing, baffling, theatrical, and frequently idealized construct, madness. He intends to give sanity its due—not as the opposite of madness (he takes up the question of whether they are in fact "true contraries") nor its shadow life or the emptiness madness fills, and not as "a caricature of normalcy," whatever that is considered to be at any given cultural moment. By the last section of the book, Phillips arrives at what he calls "a blueprint for a contemporary sanity," though not necessarily for a happy life. Indeed, Phillips mentions happiness rarely. Only the American edition bears the subtitle "Maps of Happiness"; the original British edition does not.

Much as a dictionary's definitions can feel circular—we look up a word, then look up one of the key words used to define it, and are sent back to the first word—so Phillips' tracking down the words sanity and sane can at first feel unmoored and veer toward tautologies. This may be inevitable, given the word's slipperiness and ambiguities. And the slipping and sliding are at least in part what he is confronting. (The eminent critic Michael Wood, in his review for the London Review of Books, observes that Phillips is taking on and perhaps conflating two different orders of questions: on the one hand, questions such as, "Do we know what we mean by sanity?" and "What would we lose if we lost the use of the term?" and on the other, "What, in essence, is sanity?" Wood hazards that the last question cannot be adequately answered. That Phillips does not separate these levels of questions may indeed contribute to the sense that he switches gears frequently but does not seem to change speeds.) There are plenty of welcome insights in the first section, however, including a particularly clear-eyed analysis of the antipsychiatrist R. D. Laing, a concise distinction of the Kleinian view of madness and sanity from that of Phillips' great mentor D. W. Winnicott, and an engaging consideration of Charles Lamb's sane "True Genius."

The writing becomes more grounded in the book's middle section. In its four chapters, Phillips ingeniously deconstructs the myths of modern childhood and parenting, anchors these myths in moral tradition and historical perspective, explores the ways we infer what is sane from pathologies, and turns over and over the problems of erotic urges and money hunger. He underscores the links between sanity and myths of redemption, between Original Sin and infant cravings and aggressions. He reminds us of the Romantic version of the "Fall": the "fall into adulthood," another form of a yearning for the pastoral. (The New Age clutching at the Inner Child—is that perhaps a new, wildly reductive romanticism?) For the Romantics, the pastoral was neither sweet nor soothing, for childhood was the source, the embodiment, of the vital forces, of passion and intensity. In Freud's versions—Phillips gives Freud an "equivocal place" in the Romantic ranks—and in those of later psychoanalysts, infancy and childhood encompass an increasing sense of danger and chaos. There is a madness in infancy, and again in adolescence, which terrifies adults, perhaps because those drives remain within them: "Childhood," writes Phillips, "however insistently we try to make it nice—or make it fascinating, which is our other version of pastoral—is a modern word for the insanity of the human condition."

Our current ideas of child development and parenting may thus attempt to fend off the nagging recognition that "life doesn't work." We want it to work, but there is always disjunction between the wanting and the working. We are caught between recognizing that "there is something catastrophic about being a person" and feeling unbearably constrained by that recognition. We want to be good, and we want to stay alive, and our notions of sanity, Phillips suggests, are efforts to close the gap that opens up between these two wishes.

Appetite and wanting, turbulence, and the negotiations between the acceptable and unacceptable, as well as the need for an ongoing story—these have been among Adam Phillips' longtime concerns. As he sees it, we modern Westerners deeply desire to acknowledge appetite but also fear that appetite, just as we fear the infant's unmediated, seemingly insatiable needs and wants and as we fear our own and others' erotic drives (look, as Phillips does, at parents recoiling from their adolescent children's eroticism). Phillips asks whether what Keynes called the "money-motive"—much like sexual desire—promises control and power and thus hides us from "the fear of there being nothing and no one that we want." When we see how "mad" the desire for money or sex makes us, we question any possible essential goodness, question what we want, what wanting means.

I think of Virginia Woolf's Lily Briscoe, who toward the end of To the Lighthouse feels again the pain of Mrs. Ramsay's absence: "the old horror . . . to want and want, and not to have." Lily's wanting is allied to a feeling of deep emptiness, but the feeling is also linked to creation and hope, though not easily or straightforwardly. This may be part of what Phillips is getting at, along with the problem of having and having (or being capable of having) and believing we mustn't want.

So we come to what Phillips wants, as he tries out his "blueprint for a contemporary sanity": He wants us to strive to be deeply sane. He makes a sharp distinction between the superficially sane and the deeply sane. The superficially sane give in, adapt to the point of submission, are malleable by Big Brother; the deeply sane, who might regard some of the superficially sane as mad, could be called, in Philip Larkin's phrase, "the less deceived." The deeply sane have little need to be special. They recognize that relationships are experiments without clear hypotheses. If, as Phillips suggests, our notion of being sane is ultimately a defense against potential madness, our version of Lear's "Let me not be mad," and if we have all experienced some degree of madness because we have all been infants and adolescents, then deep sanity may be a question of accepting this experience, not fearing it but integrating it, transforming it in some way. Above all, the deeply sane acknowledge that they must learn to describe and attend to what is within them, what drives them, what they want; that they may nevertheless not always be conscious of what they want; and that there is satisfaction to be gained from such a recognition. The deeply sane "enjoy conflict," can let go of "all myths of harmony, consistency, and redemption" and abide frustration. Deep sanity has no use for strict either/or choices, for condemning others as bad and urging them to be good, for holding on to one supreme idea. Finally, if we want to be truly sane, we must try to prevent humiliation.

Such formulations are often laudatory, sometimes confusing, and a little relentless in their prescriptiveness. After all, Phillips is laying down principles for what he says can never be formalized, never be turned into principles. Even if these are simply "acknowledgments," not principles, there is a moral forcefulness behind them. He has ingeniously shown us the links between moral values and socialized sanity (sanitized sanity?), but when he resorts to his own moral code, he does not remind us of such links. Perhaps they are implicit. I happen to agree that sane and humane must rhyme not just to the ear but within our being. These vital concepts must be founded upon an effort not to humiliate. Note the must. This is an idea, or a set of ideas, about goodness, a plea for us to love "the right good things," a moral credo. It is, I daresay, a credo we could use.

There are numerous contradictions to be found in Going Sane, but as I consider discussing them, I can almost hear Phillips warn me: "Contradiction is the point; what do you think I have been saying all along?" Phillips notes early in the book that for Winnicott and those allied with him, "the distinction between sanity and madness always has a question mark over it," but Phillips' later statement that deep sanity is "a container of madness, not a denier of it" seems to imply a less-than-questioned distinction. Or, since Phillips proposes that "[s]anities should be elaborated in the way that diagnoses of pathology are; . . . contested like syndromes, debated as to their causes and constitutions and outcomes, exactly as illnesses are," that seems to mean that "sanities" have their own, possibly constrictive, categories, and Phillips may be putting himself into the position of further medicalizing our lives. Of course, the possibility of more than one sanity is bracing, and Phillips does insist on debate, which reinforces the question mark. It's possible too that Phillips may be attempting to counterbalance the mental-health profession's focus on disease.

And perhaps this counterbalance involves peering through the prism of pathology—more exactly, through the prisms of certain pathologies—to see what sanity looks like from the perspective of the afflicted (or the pathologized). In the chapter called "Available Madness," he focuses on the ways we form our current pictures of sanity based particularly on what we perceive that those diagnosed with childhood autism, schizophrenia, and depression lack. The autistic child seems to lack access to desires and needs, to even lack a concept of self; the schizophrenic lacks hope for human interaction, sees utter futility in shared experience; the depressive lacks fundamental vitality, any appetite for living. Much more importantly, Phillips asks what a sane existence might be if we happened to be trapped in one of these conditions. Sanity then shifts uncomfortably. There are ways, Phillips makes clear, in which autistic, schizophrenic, or depressed behavior might be quite sane. The basic defenses out of which some part of these conditions grow are, from the sufferer's perspective, eminently, if unconsciously, logical. The psychoanalyst almost makes a stronger case than the definer or moralist.

At least one reviewer—Adam Mars-Jones for The Guardian—took offense at these suggestions, noting that psychoanalysts and other professionals can "see" what may be going on within an autistic child only from the outside, so any assumption about what such a child thinks or feels, or doesn't think or feel, is guesswork, which is of course part of the difficulty of getting any handle on autism at all. Mars-Jones also found it repugnant that Phillips would use a term like "the insane child" and would "present autism as an irreversible choice arising from trauma." Mars-Jones, to my mind, has missed the point, and most certainly has some basic disagreements with psychoanalytic endeavors. Phillips is dealing with wants, which have to do with choice, at least according to his approach. He is finding the chinks in the armor of what we have chosen to call madness and sanity. But Mars-Jones' discomfort is worth taking into account, largely because it makes us more conscious of Phillips' empathy, of his valiant attempt to turn a cherished if muddy notion on its head, and of the multiple perspectives we must not ignore.

Multiple perspectives, multiple and warring wants, a willingness to tell our stories through them: these are basic elements of Phillips' blueprint for sanity. I wonder if in offering this blueprint Phillips is advising us to live in Keats' negative capability, or to abide by Emerson's guide to self-sufficiency, though neither of these phrases crop up. I wonder whether he is reaching for a parallel to Winnicott's "good-enough" mother—a good-enough sanity, a good-enough life. I am left with questions, and that too is probably as it should be. We need to believe there is much, or everything, to question, or we will be without hope. And that is something Phillips is keen, in this distracted, often brutal world, to offer.


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