On balance, Adam Phillips may have one of the sharpest, penetrating and prescient minds in Britain today. A little excessive, you might say, and in Phillips’ most recent collection of essays ‘On Balance’ there is almost certainly a well-phrased corrective to the previous assertion.
Phillips, formerly a child and adult psychoanalyst, has, in the course of a thoughtful analytic, teaching and writing career revived and reinstated the essay as a legitimate forum for the exploration of our deepest experiences. His ability to coin aphorisms of serious intent, which readers can chew over and consider, reveals only one side of his reflective and thought-provoking output.
The essays collected in ‘On Balance’ cover considerable ground and range, but in conversation with Richard Holloway, three strands emerged; excess, perfection and our frustration at our inability to achieve either.
As Phillips points out, excess is possibly the best way to define our own poverty. This is an interesting idea for our present times, where we have seen one form of excess, risk, rewarded with excessive financial bonuses.
Excess is contagious, and as we have seen, especially in politics. Fanaticism, another manifestation of excess, is a counter to doubt. Anxiety is compensated for by increasingly entrenched belief, even as these very beliefs are being challenged – and we might look to bankers as much as to BNP members for instances of this.
Phillips, now a visiting Professor of English Literature at the University of York, went on to consider education – can school ever make us happy, and indeed should it? Happiness, he argued, promotes risk, and thereby a moral complication of our experience. It is through our response to situations of risk and complication that we learn, or perhaps more accurately come to understand, our responses to the world around us.
Children need space to develop moralities, which unavoidably contain their own complications. The most important aspect of this, Phillips suggest, is the growth of kindness or perhaps simply to discover this impulse within ourselves.
Moving on to consider perfection, the thoughts of child psychiatrist, D. W. Winnicott, came into focus, that who we love (i.e. our mothers) also frustrate us by not being permanently available to us.
We have to travel beyond the catastrophe of disillusionment toward re-illusionment, raising the question of how long we are prepared to wait for this, or on what terms we allow this to happen, which of course determines all our subsequent relations.
The other side of this for Phillips is that if our appetites are always pre-empted (perhaps through over-attention) desire does not properly develop. We are then open to substituting reliable things for unreliable people. We may achieve temporary happiness through objects, but will not gain re-illusionment with frustrating, but nonetheless significant others.
A Treatise on The Need For a Balanced Apporach To Life was at the 2010 Edinburgh International Book Festival on Sunday 29 August