Books: A couple of words about a life sentence

MONOGAMY by Adam Phillips, Faber pounds 8.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Despite its apparent size, this is a tiny book, with just a few lines of prose on each page. Adam Phillips' writing began visibly to veer towards the aphoristic in his last volume, Terrors and Experts, and in this new collection reaches that goal. We're handed provocative statements and presumably intended to think about them. It reminds me of those school exam papers mocked in 1066 And All That: Attempt to trace the bosom of the Pope; squared paper may be used. I think some of Phillips' offerings are meant to be amusing. I'm sure some of them must be tongue-in-cheek. If they're not wind-ups they're weird. For example: "Good looks, after all, are our best cultural anti-depressant. They keep the show on the road." Please sir, I disagree. Silence at the back of the class! Pay attention.

I think the point of these gnomic utterances, which often have the self- contained, sealed-off, irritating self-confidence of Sufi teaching stories, is to make us take common-sense assumptions about monogamy and re-examine them. If we are doing it, why? And if not, why not? A bit of cultural history would have proved helpful in encouraging the reader to see monogamy less as an eternal verity, a monolithic monument to the natural, than as a structure designed by patriarchs for their womenfolk, to ensure the passing-on of property to the correct heirs. But since Phillips does not value a political critique as part of his argument (or series of questions and suggestions), he relies upon rhetorical devices such as exaggeration, teasing, repetition and paradox. His quest is a linguistic one. As he says: "this book is ... an enquiry into the word we."

The preface declares a thesis: "to talk about monogamy is to talk about virtually everything that might matter ... For some of us - perhaps the fortunate, or at least, the affluent - monogamy is the only serious philosophical question."

That's a big claim, which I don't think the book substantiates. In his list of more than 40 issues which monogamy supposedly comprises, Phillips cannot squeeze, for example, hunger, rape, torture, social injustice, racism and death, which are a few of the questions even affluent philosophers continue to address without sheltering them under the umbrella of monogamy. The book picks away at "intimacy, consolation, freedom, appearances, suicide and, of course, the family" but does not exhaust their possibilities as subjects. It can't, because it relies heavily on abstract words without examining them. Its brevity seems witty but is often unsatisfactory and, in some places, almost meaningless: "A couple is a conspiracy in search of a crime. Sex is often the closest they can get."

I am sorry to sound so grudging, particularly because I enjoyed Adam Phillips's other books and longed to like this one. I feel the would-be impressive style sabotages his usual thoughtfulness and sensitivity. His swapping of terms ("perhaps we should take infidelity for granted") may shock but doesn't get us far. He nudges towards the idea of monogamy and infidelity as at least psychic possibilities, but does not discuss friendship. Surely, if we recognise, as he seems to think we should, that a single sexual partner cannot totally satisfy all our human desires, then we need to affirm the glorious promiscuity offered by passionately committed friendship. We can remain sexually faithful to a lover while being emotionally unfaithful with a myriad friends. But friends are mentioned only once: "Friends can share, lovers have to do something else."

For a book that promises to examine the word we, this one uses it as though we were all in straight couples. Do men feel the same as women about monogamy? Are "we" all the same, despite gender, or all different? What about cultures other than the white middle class? Gays? People on their own? Revolutionaries committed to sexual freedom? Phillips's "we" seems to ignore these differences, even as it forces us to acknowledge that the couple's "we" often means three or four to a bed, once we're honest about our fantasy life.

If reading is like loving, with pleasure as an aim, then I'm a bad lover to this book. It does not tempt me enough. But the right reader, seduced by Monogamy's wry apercus, tickled by its insights, and ravished by its provocations, only has to lie back and enjoy. I wish this book all the eager and expert partners Don Juan ever dreamed of.