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.