Famed psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has recently published a book called Unforbidden Pleasures. In it he bemoans the fact that we no longer feel pleasure in the ordinary experiences of everyday life. We only feel pleasure when we are engaged in an extreme activity, one that we think of as evil and wicked.
The Independent summarizes his thought:
Have we lost the art of drawing pleasure from the ordinary things in life? Adam Phillips believes so. Long after organised religion and its Thou Shalt Nots have receded from most minds, he argues we remain imprisoned by a notion that something can only be pleasurable if it is wicked.
He is right that the consumer culture in which we are all immersed plays endlessly with the perception that something can only be enjoyable if it is sinful or "indulgent", which all hints at the same thing: it can only be good if it's bad.
Despite the modern cult of health, purification and cleansing, a conviction endures that a life lived in full must be lived in the fast lane and to excess. We may have no intention of following Judy Garland or Edith Piaf, but at some level we admire them for going out with a bang, not a whimper. As Phillips puts it, we are in thrall to the idea that "the risk-taking, the transgressive are by definition having a better time". By contrast, unforbidden pleasures are viewed as "sad substitutes for forbidden ones".
One is tempted to say: speak for yourself, Adam…. It is far from self-evident that we only believe that we can gain pleasure by indulging in wickedness. Any more than we believe that we can only desire something that is forbidden.
Phillips is analyzing the culture, and such analyses, with the generalizations we can easily draw from them, must be greeted with great skepticism. Usually, they mask an ideological agenda.
It would be more accurate to say that Phillips is describing a default tactic employed by people who are depressed. The more you become desensitized the more you need extra stimulus to experience anything at all. Perhaps he is arguing that they would do better to undergo psychoanalysis… though psychoanalysis, in the traditional Freudian sense, is useless as a treatment of depression.
Or else, he might be arguing that when we analyze our propensity for wicked pleasures, we will naturally learn to enjoy more everyday pleasures. And, since Phillips does not offer any concrete steps that we might take to feel more everyday pleasures, he is left with the standard psychoanalytic remedy: enhanced consciousness.
Phillips seems to enjoy trafficking in bits and pieces of Freudian pseudo-wisdom, so we will allow him his unforbidden pleasure. And yet, strangely enough, the chronically depressed Freud did not leave very much place for unforbidden pleasures in his own fictional world. When it came to treating his own depression, Freud made use of one of the most important chemical anti-depressants: nicotine.
Freud’s was a world of dramatized experience. We underscore the fact that the word for pleasure in his pleasure principle was the German “Lust.” As you can easily guess Lust has traditionally been a forbidden pleasure. Thus, Freud must be counted as one of the creators of the kinds of beings who can only feel pleasure when it is involves an extreme and wicked experience.
Phillips is a true believing Freudian, but he is also lazy. By his admission he only writes for one day a week. In many ways this explains the problem. If you knew a concert pianist who only practiced one day a week, how well do you think that he would play? Would you want to go see him perform in concert?
Writing in the Guardian Anthony Cummins summarizes a couple of Phillips’s emptier thoughts:
Phillips says addiction “is always the ongoing attempt to survive what was experienced as malign mothering” and that “all tragedies are tragedies of obedience”.
This is silliness. When someone is prescribed an opioid to manage pain and becomes addicted to it, he is not enacting his prior experience with his malign mother. We know that those who are psychoanalytically inclined have such an affinity for blaming things on mothers. And we also know that they, as Phillips demonstrates, pretend to explain all of human experience by wrapping it in a Freudian narrative.
But, Phillips does not say that the mother was a witch, only that she was experienced as a witch. But, how do you know? Why, by the fact that you became an addict.
Like all good Freudians Phillips excels at circular reasoning. Like all good Freudians he suffers from an Ouroborous Complex. He also excels at producing narrative fictions that can neither be tested nor demonstrated. Yet, no one has ever been cured of an addiction or has learned how to control his addiction by discovering that his mother was a cold, heartless witch. No sensible therapist would even suggest such a thing.
As for tragedy, Aristotle once remarked that all tragedy involves hybris—powerful people brought down by arrogance. You might say that tragic heroes disobey the gods or obey the wrong gods, but isn’t that a sign of arrogance?
As it happens, obedience is normally considered a good thing. An army where no one follows orders is not going to be very effective. But, disobedience does not a tragedy make. A disobedient child or a child who is conflicted about which rules to follow is not a tragic hero.
Former psychoanalyst Salley Vickers explains the Phillips vision in The New Statesman. In the end, it’s warmed over Freudianism:
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.
Note the drama: censorship and murder. Pick your poison. A Freudian might want to believe that much of our behavior is being produced by a censor, but, if you think about it, censorship and threats can only tell you what not to do. They do not prescribe socially appropriate behaviors. In truth, there is no way of generating customary behaviors like table manners from a series of taboos… rules that tell you what not to do.
Besides, people enjoy learning how to do things the right way… whether it involves good table manners or learning how to converse.
In the paragraph quoted, Phillips does not seem to understand the difference between shame and guilt, but I have written about it often enough already. If he or anyone else wants to learn about it they can read my book on Saving Face or my book The Last Psychoanalyst.
The latter work contains my reading of Hamlet, so I will not repeat it here.
Vickers summarizes the Phillips reading:
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).
Surely, it is possible that Hamlet wants to expose Claudius in public. I mentioned it in The Last Psychoanalyst. Since I have not read the Phillips book, I do not know whether he gave me credit for the idea… but I will assume, for the sake of propriety, that he did.
As for the notion of engaging Claudius in a more creative conversation through play, here Phillips gets confused. A play, as dramatic presentation is not the same thing as play, as what one does in a game. Just because the word is the same that does not mean that the concept is the same. Phillips should know better than to introduce such confusion.
More importantly, Phillips is exposing the dark underside of psychoanalysis. Consider this: psychoanalysis is presumably used to treat mental distress. Among the principal mental defects is depression. Among the salient characteristics of depression are a loss of appetite, a loss of sexual desire and an inability to experience pleasure. Psychiatry calls the latter anhedonia.
Freudian psychoanalysis cannot treat or cure any of the above because it does not have the conceptual tools to do so. It treats the loss of desire by teaching patients to manufacture an artificial desire for forbidden objects and people… thereafter to teach patients that in order to find their spouses desirable they must see them as forbidden.
As for anhedonia, Phillips derides the notion that someone who is depressed should try to find pleasure by engaging in self-indulgent and decadent actions. And yet, that is the only solution that Freudian theory really admits of. You can blame it all on consumer culture, but Freudian theory and the therapy culture has certainly contributed mightily to the problem
In truth, when people are cured of their depression, they recover their desire, their appetite and their capacity to experience pleasure. It does not happen because they have learned how to fold their experience and their life history into a Freudian narrative that pretends to explain everything as a function of bad mothering. It happens when they recover their pride, their self-respect and their confidence. Sometimes this occurs through processes involving cognitive therapy. At other times, it requires coaching.
You cannot overcome depression by becoming more conscious of your consciousness. Phillips understands that the word “conscience” also means consciousness, but he does not seem to understand that trying to cure depression by getting more involved with your mind will, as Hamlet said, make you a coward and render you inactive. You cannot gain a better sense of your own value by lacking courage and being unable to function.