"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, January 23, 2017

Unforbidden Pleasures and Desires: Despoiling Psychoanalytic Egyptians and Englishmen

I've previously discussed a book, Missing Out, by the prolific English scholar and psychoanalyst Adam Philips. It is a book that has remained with me for many months now, provoking a good deal of thought, and (always a sign a book has sparked real interest in an academic) I am keenly trying to gin up ways to work it into one or more of my courses.

As I continue to make my way through several of his recent publications, I am struck, as I was when reading Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, that his more recent book, Unforbidden Pleasures: Rethinking Authority, Power, and Vitality (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016), similarly, but equally unwittingly, presents rich theological possibilities, especially if one thinks about these matters, as I do, in a rather Evagrian spirit.

Herewith the publisher's blurb, and then some further thoughts of mine:

Much has been written of the forbidden pleasures. But what of the "unforbidden" pleasures?
Unforbidden Pleasures is the singular new book from Adam Phillips, the author of Missing Out, Going Sane, and On Balance. Here, with his signature insight and erudition, Phillips takes Oscar Wilde as a springboard for a deep dive into the meanings and importance of the unforbidden, from the fall of our "first parents," Adam and Eve, to the work of the great psychoanalytic thinkers.
Forbidden pleasures, he argues, are the ones we tend to think about, yet when you look into it, it is probable that we get as much pleasure, if not more, from unforbidden pleasures than from those that are taboo. And we may have underestimated just how restricted our restrictiveness, in thrall to the forbidden and its rules, may make us. An ambitious book that speaks to the precariousness of modern life, Unforbidden Pleasures explores the philosophical, psychological, and social dynamics that govern human desire and shape our everyday reality.
Philips, it is clear, thinks some theology suspect--Christian, but also, in our day, particularly Islamic--because of its inordinately large role (at least its perceived role) as a source of most of what is forbidden. In that regard, he would seem to play to type at least as many Christians assume whenever they might pause for a second to entertain psychoanalysis at all--if they do. Such people assume (based, almost invariably, on twisted and partial fourth-hand accounts of  the later Freud, who was not as interesting or worthwhile as the earlier Freud, at least when it comes to cultural matters) that all psychoanalysis (if not all psychology) is hostile to theology.

Not so, as I have tried to show on here repeatedly. Indeed, there have been recent and commendable moves precisely to re-think the entire relationship between psychoanalysis and theology, and in serious hands a very good case can be made that each has much to offer the other, and indeed, as some have argued, psychoanalysis finds consummation (to use a Pickstockian term) in theology.

Philips should not for a moment be dismissed as just one more cultured analytic despiser of theology. He is far too literate and supple a thinker for that, and what he says, and the manner in which he says it, clearly indicate that he is not some ham-fisted ideologue or fanatic. Indeed, to state the matter positively, his thought clearly offers, it seems to me, many rich opportunities (as I showed with his earlier book Missing Out) for Christians to "despoil" the Egyptians and rediscover a good deal of wisdom.

Rather, he is interested in the uses and abuses of theology (and many other things besides--family, culture, and our own selves) to bind us with commands and dictates that clearly forbid many things. As he puts it, "this book is about whether the unforbidden pleasures have something more to tell us, or at least something else to tell us, about pleasure than the forbidden ones. Were this to be true, a lot of things that we have taken very seriously would seem less serious. The tyranny of the forbidden is not that it forbids, but that it tells us what we want--to do the forbidden thing. The unforbidden gives no orders" (160).

It is not the forbidding that he necessarily objects to but the fact that such acts, when used or thought of wrongly, especially in the hands of those trying to control others, can ultimately prove to be not just unhelpful but unhealthful and indeed downright destructive. Here--though he does not quote Paul--the letter to the Galatians is apt: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery" (5:1). What Philips would suggest is that most of us are all too willing to be yoked and enslaved, most often and most acutely by our own internal censors and controllers--what Freud called the super-ego.

But what if the freedom we conceive of is based on a mistaken understanding? What if, that is, we conceive of freedom as "doing what is forbidden without consequence"--what Paul and the tradition after him would call licentiousness, which is neither free nor freeing? What if we conceive of freedom as being liberated to "follow your bliss" or "indulge your passions"? Evagrius and the tradition developing after him (which, I would suggest, was psychoanalytic avant la lettre) would say that following your passions is not freedom but enslavement. True freedom comes from being uncontrolled by such desires. Again, Phillips does not pursue these questions in precisely this theological vein, but such questions are very strongly suggested by his deeply suggestive writing; and I like to think that were he and Evagrius to enter into a discussion, they would find much in common.

Phillips does, however, openly explore theology at least a little bit when, e.g., at the start of his chapter "Against Self-Criticism," he begins thus:
Jacques Lacan famously remarked that there must surely be something ironic about Christ's injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself because people actually hate themselves.
Who among us has not wondered precisely the same thing? In reading this, I was immediately put in mind of Paul Evdokimov's lyrical book, Sacrament of Love, where he talks about marriage in this staggering vein: "In order to be loved by the other, one must renounce oneself completely. It is a deep and unceasing ascetic practice.” Learning to love oneself, in other words, is not at all self-evident or easy, and it is the achievement of Phillips' book to ask why that is so.

He specializes, in fact, in asking questions, making suggestions, dropping both, and then repeatedly circling back on them. Phillips' very diffuse and circuitous style are greatly on display in this book, which requires a good bit of patience to extract some of his really important questions and suggestions. In this regard, his style strongly reminds me of a passage from Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited: "Up, down, and round the argument circled and swooped like a gull, now out to sea, out of sight, cloud-bound, among irrelevances and repetitions, now right on the patch where the offal floated." Here, I suspect, we see the real result of his work as an analyst, which with most patients rarely proceeds straightforwadly and directly. Rather, as Freud famously put it, much of the really hard work in an analysis comes from "remembering, repeating, and [only then] working through."

Given such a style, it would be facile to glance at any given passage and assume that Phillips is advocating some kind of anarchist approach to life--let nothing be forbidden or controlled! But that would be to misunderstand him (I think!). It is not that certain things are, or should be forbidden: Phillips does not object, per se, to forbidding some things. But he asks: what if we have this forbidden-unforbidden relationship rather backwards? What if we spend too much time lamenting what is apparently forbidden--so much time, in fact, desiring what is, or seems to be, forbidden that we fail to realize that much, perhaps most, of our satisfaction and joy in life comes from what is unforbidden?

Additional important questions abound: why do we spend so much time and effort on self-criticism "and then we turn this ferocious, unrelenting self-criticism into an unforbidden pleasure" (83). In other words, why do we not forbid such ferocious self-criticism, instead of allowing it such lavish free reign in our lives? Why not forbid that?

Our self-criticism comes from our superego, Phillips suggests, revisiting a classic part of the Freudian tripartite model of the mind. And why do we allow the superego such a reign and role when it is "remarkably narrow-minded" and "relentlessly repetitive"? Our superegos are the worst sort of guests we would either never invite or else flee from the presence of at a party--complete bores whose views never change, and are expressed in the most tedious and strident terms.

Part of what psychoanalysis may be able to assist people with--and so, mutatis mutandis, good spiritual direction, as I suggested here might also be able to offer--is helping the analysand, who is "suffering now from the self-cure of his organized symptoms," be able to "recover an appetite to speak with greater freedom." That sounds rather undemanding and perhaps even banal, but for many people it is precisely that greater inner freedom which can make all the difference.

Finally, I take Phillips to be useful in reminding all of us that what we often deride as daily drudgery--getting up to do our duty, which is not forbidden--is, for most of us most of the time, the greater, if greatly overlooked, source of most of our satisfaction in life. We spend too much time imagining the greatness of fulfilling our forbidden desires--of longing for an imagined life where all our forbidden desires are fulfilled, and Missing Out on the life we have.

The problem, moreover, is--to put it in explicitly spiritual terms--not only that we downplay or deride our daily life as drudgery denying us our forbidden desires: the problem is that this attitude and approach overlooks the station to which most of us have been appointed for our divinization and sanctification.

Here Phillips--who at one point goes on an interesting aside about what unique factors English analysts have contributed to the analytic tradition, riven as it often is by ideological factions which the British Independent School, inter alia, managed to largely circumvent (in, e.g., such analysts as Nina Coltart)--puts me in mind of the most famous Englishman of the 19th century, John Henry Newman.

In one of his Parochial and Plain Sermons from his Anglican days, he compared the man who overlooks his own life and thinks, to be worthy of God, he must do as an apostle did (Newman was preaching on St. Bartholomew's day). But Newman gently but firmly rebukes this line of thinking in a way that is, I think, greatly in line with the spirit of Phillips, if not the letter:
To rise up, and go through the same duties, and then to rest again, day after day,—to pass week after week, beginning with God's service on Sunday, and then to our worldly tasks,—so to continue till year follows year, and we gradually get old,—an unvaried life like this is apt to seem unprofitable to us when we dwell upon the thought of it. Many indeed there are, who do not think at all;—but live in their round of employments, without care about God and religion, driven on by the natural course of things in a dull irrational way like the beasts that perish. But when a man begins to feel he has a soul, and a work to do, and a reward to be gained, greater or less, according as he improves the talents committed to him, then he is naturally tempted to be anxious from his very wish to be saved, and he says, "What must I do to please God?" And sometimes he is led to think he ought to be useful on a large scale, and goes out of his line of life, that he may be doing something worth doing, as he considers it. Here we have the history of St. Bartholomew and the other Apostles to recall us to ourselves, and to assure us that we need not give up our usual manner of life, in order to serve God; that the most humble and quietest station is acceptable to Him, if improved duly.
Newman clearly recognized, here and elsewhere, that the better part in life consists not in wasting time fantasizing about "forbidden" desires, but in the unforbidden pleasure, indeed eternal joy, of following the Lord daily and quietly, and in so doing discovering that true freedom for which we have been sent free. To the extent that Adam Phillips, in Unforbidden Pleasures: Rethinking Authority, Power, and Vitality, helps us appreciate this, all of us, Christian and otherwise, are once again in his considerable debt.

(Stay tuned for future thoughts on Phillips On Balance as well as his Side Effects.)

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