On Balance, By Adam Phillips

Never mind the quality, feel the wit
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The Independent Culture

Although the psychoanalyst and author Adam Phillips argues in his preface that this essay collection has a single, unifying theme – simply put, how our concepts of "balance" inform our judgements about the world – in truth it is a rather loose affair.

It takes in everything from fundamentalism to childhood development, from virtue ethics to the meaning of sleep. What coherence the book has is conferred by his playful, aphoristic prose style ("the trouble with one's family is that that is all they are") and his tendency to invoke the id. Phillips's thoughts on art and literature – collected here in a tour d'horizon that ranges from Diane Arbus's photography to the poetry of W H Auden – are particularly astute. Notably, he succeeds in the difficult task of saying something original about the German writer W G Sebald: he sees it as ironic that Sebald's work garnered such extravagant critical praise, given that the author himself was profoundly distrustful of any sort of celebratory fervour.

But for every one of Phillips's essays that delights with its measured wit and elegance, there is another that tips the scales toward the self-indulgent. Particularly wearisome is a meandering treatise on the psychological significance of fairy tales, which amounts to an exercise in stating the obvious. Jack's beanstalk, the author tells us, can be seen as a phallic symbol; Cinderella's moody stepmother was just jealous. To which Freud might have rejoined: well, duh?

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