Books: The trouble with Blake

THE BEAST IN THE NURSERY by Adam Phillips, Faber pounds 14.99

WRITING IN a sustained and intelligent way about the great questions of life is such a tricky enterprise that few people even dare to have a go. Issues like the nature of happiness, the purpose of relationships or the point of art rarely get discussed except in simplistic newspaper articles or jargon-laden academic books.

Which is what makes Adam Phillips such an extraordinary and welcome phenomenon, for he is a psychoanalyst who has managed to discard the jargon and obscurity afflicting most writers in his profession, in order to craft highly original and subtle essays about nothing less than the meaning of life. His first collection was cheekily entitled, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored (1993); it was followed by On Flirtation (1994), Terrors and Experts (1995) and now - after a misjudged book of aphorisms, Monogamy - we have The Beast in the Nursery. The rest of this review is an attempt to persuade you to read him.

The Beast in the Nursery examines our ideas of what it means to grow up. Becoming an adult is normally described as a process in which we surrender our wilder desires (to have everything in the shop, to eat all the biscuits and, if you're a Freudian little boy, sleep with your mummy and kill off daddy) so as to taken on a responsible role in society (and marry someone who reminds you of, but isn't in fact your mother). This story, particularly according to the Romantic school of poets, is also judged to be a sad one. Growing up means finding out the truly monstrous variety of ways in which the world can let you down.

Phillips is aware that psychoanalysis has done much to enforce this story of growing up: "Psychoanalysis confirms the traditional view that we have been born into the wrong world, but for some reason ... we must try to make the most of it." Freud described the actions of the young child as governed by what he termed the pleasure principle. A child would initially seek to satisfy her own urges at all times while more or less unaware of anyone else's feelings. Gradually, this primary selfishness would give way to a moral sense, what Freud termed the reality principle, based on feelings of guilt and shame. Freud knew that the adjustment to this reality principle was highly fraught, and could result in neuroses, depressions and phobias. Psychoanalysis was a place where people might go when reality had grown unbearable.

For Freud, the idea of a healthy person was therefore someone who had been able to make a good adjustment to reality. But, as Phillips suggests here, it's worth thinking further about what constitutes a good adjustment. Aren't some of the greatest achievements of civilisations the work of people who have failed to make the greatest adjustments (William Blake is Phillips's example)? And isn't it possible to be well-adjusted to such a degree that one in fact becomes depressed, bored and boring? Freud was aware of the problem. In a little-known essay ("Civilised Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness") which Phillips quotes, Freud remarked that though becoming an adult meant renouncing many of our sexual desires, those who renounced them too much developed other problems:

"I have not gained the impression that sexual abstinence helps to bring about energetic and self-reliant men of action, or original thinkers or bold emancipators and reformers. Far more often it goes to produce well-behaved weaklings who later become lost in the great mass of people that tend to follow, unwillingly, the leads given by strong individuals."

Phillips expands on the problem of over-compliance in a discussion of education. There is a difference between those who do well at school in order to please the teacher, and those who learn things because they are spontaneously curious. There are dangers either way; pupils who please teachers rarely become original thinkers, but pupils who pay no attention miss out on the discoveries of civilisation.

Phillips's book is packed with the most suggestive ideas: on creativity, anger, depression and happiness. It demands to be read slowly, and repeatedly prompted this reader to gaze out of the window and examine his assumptions - which is one definition of a good book.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?

An enlightening finale for Don Draper

Arts and Entertainment
Serious player: Aussie Guy Sebastian rehearses for the big show in Vienna

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
    Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

    The end of an era across the continent

    It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
    Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

    'Focus on killing American people'

    Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
    Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

    Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

    The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
    Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

    Same-sex marriage

    As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
    The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

    The Mafia is going freelance

    Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable